Monthly Archives: January 2012

Why Twitter’s new policy is helpful for free-speech advocates

I know many people are upset with Twitter’s announcement that it will now be able to block tweets country by country. There has been a lot of excellent writing / reporting on the content explaining that this is not as bad as it looks. (Check out good posts by my friend Jillian York here or Alex Howard here). My initial reaction upon a cursory reading of the announcement was also that it wasn’t too bad, given the alternatives. However I’ve since looked at the policy in more detail and my conclusion is that this isn’t a mediocre but acceptable policy; rather, this is an excellent policy which will be helpful to free-speech advocates.

I often criticize companies on this blog so I want to take a moment to recognize Twitter for a model policy and explain why these should be the kind of practices that I hope other Internet companies follow.

In my opinion, with this policy, Twitter is fighting to protect free speech on Twitter as best it possibly can. (It also fits with its business model so I am not going to argue they are uniquely angelic, but Twitter does have a good track record. Twitter was the only company which first fought the US government to protect user information in the Wikileaks case and then informed the users when it lost the fight. In fact, Twitter’s transparency is the only reason we even know of this; other companies, it appears, silently caved and complied.)

Twitter’s latest policy is purposefully designed to allow Twitter to exist as a platform as broadly as possible while making it as hard as possible for governments to censor content, either tweet by tweet or more, all the while giving free-speech advocates a lot of tools to fight censorship.

Let’s look at the policy.

1-      The policy is narrower than before. 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. [Edited to add: And this is still what usually happens at Facebook and Google–the content is gone globally.]

2-      The policy is realistic–and non-realistic policies are not better as they won’t work. The idea that Twitter can just ignore court orders everywhere is not only unrealistic, it would result in more countries to try to block Twitter completely–or make it accessible only via proxies and thus greatly restrict its power. The Internet is not a “virtual” space, and cyberspace is not a planet which can float above all jurisdictions forever. In this move, Twitter is acknowledging this fact while complying within the bare minimum framework.

3-      The policy is transparent. Blocked tweets will be shown as “blocked” along with the blocking country. This is excellent! This level of transparency should be the model for all Internet companies. Companies should not remove content globally; rather they should do so in as few jurisdictions as possible with as much notice as possible. (for a negative example, check out the story of how Blogger is censoring Egyptian activist Ramy Raoof’s post on brutality by security forces in Egypt. In that case, Ramy’s content is blocked globally and the post just *disappeared* without a clear indication of the censorship).

4-      The policy provides tools for free-speech advocates. Twitter will publish list of blocked tweets, along with links to the original tweet –so everyone who is not at that particular country can see what it’s about–as well as a copy of the court order or enforceable takedown notice at Free-speech advocates have a transparent and powerful tool.

5-      The policy is not made such that it’s hard to circumvent. Twitter helpfully included instructions on how to change your country (i.e. “manually override” the country setting which is ordinarily determined by IP). I don’t know about you, but does this sound like Twitter is caving? Also, obviously, Tor, VPN and other proxy users will be able to access the content fairly easily.

6-      Twitter spokespeople have repeatedly said they will only block content in “In the face of a valid and applicable legal order.” This is a good standard and I don’t think any company can get around this in jurisdictions where they have physical presence; nor is it clear that they should. Of course, we all need to be watching carefully to ensure that they do so and not just cooperate with governments based on “requests.”

I suspect this policy will cause some governments to continue to block Twitter on the whole because it doesn’t make it easy for governments to block content (they have to at least follow some level of procedure) and it creates a “Streisand effect” on censored tweets

Twitter can’t fight all free speech battles by itself; and it can’t change laws or governments around the world, nor can it ignore issues of jurisdiction. In particular, if faced with a court order that requires Twitter to identify dissidents in a country where torture or severe repression is in place, I hope Twitter first makes this as public as possible, and then choses to pull out of that country rather than comply (as Yahoo did in the shameful case of Wang Xiaoning and others in China – and some these people remain in prison after almost a decade).

There is a lot more to be said about the dangers of centralization, the emergence of corporate platforms as larger and larger portions of our political and social commons, and the conflicts between control, profit motives, and free and civic speech these recent developments raise. I don’t want to sound like I am happy to trust a few corporations and that’s it. On the contrary, I’ve repeatedly tried to warn against these dangers. All that said, I don’t think it is helpful if we don’t recognize a good policy when we see one.

In this particular policy, Twitter has done everything it can do to help free-speech advocates around the world except deliver coffee and bagels in the morning.  This is a model of how Internet companies should behave.  I hope Twitter practices this policy as it outlined, and practices maximum transparency and minimum compliance with restrictive laws.