A lot of digital ink has been spilled about Twitter’s announcement that it can now censor tweets on a country-by-country basis. The move has prompted a growing number of users to organize under the hashtag #TwitterBlackout and pledge to boycott the service on January 28 by refusing to tweet. But these users are misguided — Twitter’s new policy is actually good for activists.
For a number of reasons, Twitter’s new policy is a win for freedom of speech advocates. The first thing to keep in mind is that Twitter’s guidelines have long said that, “International users agree to comply with all local laws regarding online conduct and acceptable content.” According to last year’s official blog post on censorship, Twitter did already sometimes take down tweets that were deemed “illegal.”
Most or all of those removed tweets so far have, it seems, been related copyright violation takedown requests under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act in the U.S. The takeaway here, though, is that Twitter’s rules have always allowed them to remove illegal content at the request of governments, and they never said they wouldn’t. So what has changed? Technology and transparency.
The new censorship technology announced by Twitter allows the company to block tweets or users on a country-by-country basis. Previously, blocking tweets had to be done globally, meaning if an oppressive regime asked Twitter to remove a tweet or block a user, it had to be done for everyone in the world. Now, Twitter can remove that tweet in that country, but allow the world to see it.
But wouldn’t it be better for activists if Twitter just refused to comply with requests from oppressive regimes? Actually, no.
If a government asks Twitter to remove an offending tweet, the company essentially has two options: Comply and block that single tweet or user in that country (while still allowing the rest of the world to see), or refuse and risk the government itself blocking Twitter for everyone in that country. So which seems better for activists? I’ll pick the former any day — it still allows activists to speak to the world at large and draw attention to their treatment. That’s something Reuters’ Anthony DeRosa posits could be more powerful.
Further, because Twitter has promised to increase their transparency about takedown requests, it should become easier for activists to monitor which countries are censoring their citizens. As NPR’s Andy Carvin noted on Twitter, every social media platform faces these same sorts of requests. Twitter is just being more transparent about how they deal with them.
But what about Twitter as an organizing tool? Surely this will make it impossible for protesters to use online tools like Twitter to organize, as they did during so many uprisings and political movements in 2011. There are two reasons to be hopeful that Twitter’s censorship policy will not have an appreciable impact on the ability of people to organize locally using Twitter.
First, Twitter’s technology appears to be easy to circumvent. And further, Twitter appears to clearly be telling users how to get around its censors.
Second, activists are smart. They always have been. Last year in Libya, for example, opposition leaders reportedly used coded messages on dating sites to avoid detection by secret police. A Twitter spokesperson has indicated that the company will only block tweets or users “in the face of a valid and applicable legal order.” In other words: Twitter won’t just block a user any time a government asks, so activists should still be able to communicate on the network, assuming their tweets don’t run afoul of local laws.
At face value, when a company announces plans to censor its users at the behest of governments, it is alarming. But when you dig down into what Twitter announced, it is actually a win for freedom of speech and a long-term benefit for anyone who fights for openness and democracy.