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Twitter’s selective censorship of tweets may be the best option, but it’s still censorship

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Twitter’s ability to block certain tweets or users from being seen in specific countries, a somewhat Orwellian feature it calls the “country-withheld content” tool, seems to be getting more popular, according to the Chilling Effects clearinghouse, which tracks such things: tweets and/or users are now being blocked in Pakistan as well as Turkey, and a pro-Ukrainian account is apparently unavailable to users who try to view it from inside Russia, at the request of the government.

In much the same way that Google now shows different maps to users depending on whether they live in Russia or Ukraine, Twitter is shaping the view that its users have of the world around them. Is this a clever way of getting around censorship, or does it ultimately just disguise the problem?

Twitter first introduced the selective censorship tool in 2012, after repeated requests from a number of countries to remove tweets that were judged to be illegal, such as pro-Nazi comments in Germany. When it was launched, the company said that Twitter would do its best to avoid using it as much as possible and to remain the “free-speech wing of the free-speech party,” to use a phrase popularized by Twitter’s former general counsel Alex Macgillivray.

Twitter content withheld

The best of all the unpleasant options?

Zeynep Tufekci, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and an expert in the effects of social-media use during events like the Arab Spring revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, wrote at the time it was introduced that the policy was the best available way for Twitter to protect free speech while also trying to expand its network into new parts of the world. As she described it in a blog post:

“In my opinion, with this policy, Twitter is fighting to protect free speech on Twitter as best it possibly can… previously, when Twitter would take down content when forced to do so by a court order, it would disappear globally. Now, it will only be gone in the specific country in which the court order is applicable. This is a great improvement.”

As Tufekci pointed out, Twitter’s approach is a lot better than that taken by Facebook, which routinely deletes content from its platform with little or no warning, and virtually no attempt at transparency. To take just one example, pages posted by dissidents in Syria that are devoted to the chemical weapon attacks of last year are being deleted, which blogger Brown Moses has pointed out is thereby depriving the world of a crucial record of those events.

It’s also true that Twitter has a much better track record of fighting for the free-speech rights of its users than just about any other platform: it alerted users that the Justice Department was asking for their personal information in relation to a WikiLeaks investigation, even though it was asked not to do so, and it fought hard in a French court for the right not to turn over user data related to tweets that broke that country’s laws on homophobia and anti-Semitic content.

Selective censorship is still censorship

All that said, however, not everyone is convinced that selective censorship is the best possible approach for Twitter to take. Jillian York, the Director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, seemed frustrated by the company’s increasing use of the “country-withheld content” tool, judging by some of her comments on Twitter — and some critics of Tufekci’s stance on the issue have argued that the feature actually makes the problem worse by making it less obvious that censorship has occurred.

For me, the troubling thing about Twitter’s selective content-blocking tool is that, like Google’s selective adjusting of the borders between countries based on where the user is located, it almost makes censorship too easy — just another feature box that can be checked — and that encourages governments like those in Turkey and Pakistan to use it for anything that seems even remotely offensive or irritating, a list that seems to grow by the day.

By selectively removing that content or changing the borders on maps for certain users, the world becomes a little less open, without most people even realizing that it is happening. Would it be better if there was a hue and cry every time such actions were taken, so that people who don’t happen to check Chilling Effects would know about it and be able to protest? Perhaps. I confess I don’t really know. But making censorship easier shouldn’t be the goal, I don’t think.

Free speech doesn’t always succumb to a public onslaught from governments or corporations with hidden agendas and massive resources — sometimes it dies the death of a thousand small cuts, without so much as a whimper.

10 Responses to “Twitter’s selective censorship of tweets may be the best option, but it’s still censorship”

  1. Kim Lucus

    While Twitter blocks specific content in Pakistan, I think it is very necessary for parents to block those unwanted Internet content on their family computer using Aobo filter for PC.

  2. Davis Goodman

    Censoring abusive or menacing posts is one thing. Allowing tweets to be censored for political control is a massive fail. Twitter FAILS. The internet FAILS. And we fail people in countries with repressive governments when we do nothing about it. Big time FAIL.

  3. NoCensorshipEver

    Who censors the censors? If one can seriously put forward an answer to that question then perhaps some types of censorship may be defended. However, there has yet to be such a response throughout history. Dog sh*t is dog sh*t, no matter how one attempts to disguise it. Censorship is censorship is censorship.

  4. Frank

    Let the world see what content is being blocked elsewhere. Notify users that a tweet was censored for users in X country (even if not blocked in their own country).

  5. George Tsiolis

    The bottom line is that the world is a very big place and different countries simply have different rules of engagement. What we see as censorship, they may truthfully view as national security.

    For example, If this is Canada in the 1960’s, how would Trudeau handle the FLQ? They were viewed as both “terrorists” and “idealists” depending on who you spoke to.

    There are many sides to national debates and – like it or not – the governing body has a right to decide which side of the debate is best suited for them.

  6. Daan Loening

    This may be a little bit of a silly question, but can’t they simply replace the tweet with the text “this tweet is not available in your country”.

    This way the censorship is not hidden, but they would still comply with the court order to remove the content of the specific tweet.

    If I follow a user whose tweets are illegal in my country I would have a bunch of “this tweet is not available in your country” tweets in my timeline.

    This is what youtube does with regards to videos that breach German copyright law. You still see the video is there, you just can’t watch it.

  7. Thabo Mophiring

    I am concerned that it is considered a good thing to resist handing over data on homophobia and anti-semitism.

    Free speech is not a licence to cause harm.

    US media self-censored on Iraq war without much of a US outcry. At least the information remains on Twitter and that means activists can find a way to get to it.

  8. pervbear

    Sadly I think its twitters only real option, the other is have itself blocked fully in some countries. Which if it wants to continue to see global growth they can’t let happen.