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 http://chillingeffects.org/twitter. 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.

95 thoughts on “Why Twitter’s new policy is helpful for free-speech advocates

  1. awoodbMaven

    I fully agree. At first I thought it was bad, but on reflect, it’s a very powerful Freedom of Information stand whilst keeping on the right side of the law via plausible deniability.

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  3. Sling Trebuchet

    On the plus side, it could be useful to see what individual countries want to suppress. The ChillingEffect.org listings would have to identify the topic – but without being able to show the specific words or links causing the offence.

    A question is: How long would a regime continue to play whack-a-mole with a blizzard of individual tweets?
    The logical move would be to press Twitter to filter all tweets for offensive content. (Good luck with that.)
    If Twitter refused, or could not deliver the desired effect, then the regime could move to block Twitter completely. Yet this is a measure that the withholding of selected tweets from a country might have been intended to avoid.
    Along the way, Twitter would be presented with official requests for records of individual users and all users tweeting given hashtags – as happened in the US recently.

    It might seem positive that Twitter would be available to residents of a given country where formerly the regime would have blocked Twitter completely.
    The negative would be that the mass of residents might not be aware that their government was suppressing certain topics. The availability of Twitter to them could be mistaken as a sign of openness on the part of the regime.

    1. awoodbMaven

      “On the plus side, it could be useful to see what individual countries want to suppress. The ChillingEffect.org listings would have to identify the topic – but without being able to show the specific words or links causing the offence.”

      Why would ChillingEffects.org not be able to show the specific words or links causing the offence? If their website is based in, say the US, and the country protesting the tweet content was, say South Africa, ChillingEffects.org (unless based in South Africa, which I doubt, or unless there was also a ban in the US) would not have the obligation to remove the tweet content, no?

      1. zeynep Post author

        I agree that it would be great if chillingeffects would organize blocked tweets by country, type of request (copyright versus other issues) and allow keyword and topic based searches.

        The current twitter announcement is explicit that this is a “reactive” system–no algorithmic censorship, no keyword filtering. That is one of the reasons I thought it was a good move.

      2. Sling Trebuchet

        “Why would ChillingEffects.org not be able to show the specific words or links causing the offence? ”
        The placeholder displayed by Twitter links to Chilling Effects. If ChillingEffects displays the content in question, then a regime wishing to suppress visibility of the content will demand the link not be shown.
        Bear in mind that the reason for suppressing the original tweet could simply be that it contained a link to certain content. The text of the tweet could have been completely innocuous in itself.
        A regime could respond by blocking all access to ChillingEffects.org, but that still leaves Twitter’s placeholder red-flagging an issue to residents of a country.

        Could a regime legally demand that Twitter remove all links to content that it deems offensive?
        Yes indeed.

        My use of the word ‘regime’ above may somewhat misleading. It might bring to mind a ‘non-Western totalitarian’ image. You know – non-pinkskinned people who might have beards or large moustaches.

        Consider the case of Richard O’Dwyer
        “A judge ruled on Friday that a 23-year-old student can be extradited to the United States for running a website posting links to pirated TV shows and films, despite significant doubts over whether such sites break any UK laws.”
        He did what? He posted links to content. He didn’t host that content.

        I’m far from convinced that regimes that would have blocked Twitter outright before ‘by-country suppression’ would not end up blocking Twitter anyway, despite the new policy. Whack-a-mole won’t cut it for them.

    2. Only Me

      The regime it self do something, like law without meaning. But others will do, all they possibly can to block every one involved s economic and possibilities to travel without harassment, get arrested for made up crimes and alike. Otherwise… $¤3″~& will happened to trade and cooperation.

      Only what I think might happened.

  4. mike

    A good piece of writing, and I agree. Though it must be said, this coming on the heels of a multi-million Saudi investment in Twitter is a little bit sus.

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  7. tomslee

    I agree with your argument but it leads me to a different conclusion. Twitter is doing what it can to maintain an open space, but the new policy exposes some inherent limitations of centralized social networks as a medium for transmitting dissenting or illegal views.

    Both Ethan Zuckerman’s “Cute Cats” theory and Philip Howard(?)’s “Dictator’s Dilemma” argue that speech is more likely to be free on the Internet under authoritarian regimes because stopping such speech also damages commerce and the everyday lives of the population. But legal systems are beginning to react to the new technologies and are finding more fine-grained ways to respond — like censoring at the level of the individual Tweet. Twitter’s policy maximizes openness on its platform, but may mean (depending on how it is implemented) that governments no longer have to do an all-or-nothing censorship when they want to dampen the flow of dissent.

    The endgame is that the time during which speech on Facebook and Twitter was exceptionally free is closing, and that it will become increasingly clear that (as commenter Nate says at registan) “the Internet is not a consequence free space”.

    1. zeynep Post author

      Legal systems may indeed respond in more fine-grained ways and will soon find themselves playing whack-a-mole with their netizens. Blocking tweet by tweet “reactively”, in a way that is visible, and also easily circumventable is not a very friendly method to government censorship.

      1. Only Me

        I do think the people behind twitter fully understand and know what they’re doing. Probably with lots of pressure and threats from someone with real power behind. And they clearly link to own site were a step to step to get around the censorship explains.
        They are quite lonesome among company’s to really defend users rights. Maybe because they are a bit smaller and not with same economical interest..?

        And when it comes to the future, I’m sure netizens will be way ahead of people sitting in conference rooms and been to the worlds webs only to pay bills, or so.

    1. Walt French

      Go ahead Dan, and guide in our skepticism (cynicism?) so that we can reach your level: what should we MOST distrust about this announcement? Where is it Twitter’s interest to say one thing and do another?

      Seems like technical “oops” is the most likely, which isn’t very interesting. Also, I didn’t see anything about indicating to readers in Country X that Country Y has blocked a certain post; that’d sure be useful but might make it harder for Twitter to operate in Y, period. D’ya think that friendly relations issues might have shaped the policy in a way that’s worse for users (and if so, how)?

      “Inquiring Minds Want to Know!” ®

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  10. Iris

    I agree that Twitter does try to be very open about this transition of policy (much more than other corporations) and it might have some benefits to free speech advocates (with the blocked Tweets in plain sight, for everybody to see). But that does not change the fact that the reason for blocking Tweets has now shifted from ‘blocking after being forced to do so by a court order’ to ‘blocking in the face of a valid and applicable legal order’, with Twitter in charge of deciding if that order is ‘valid and applicable’…

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  12. tim

    “Twitter has done everything it can do to help free-speech advocates around the world except deliver coffee and bagels in the morning.”

    Well, except allow them to tweet what they want, from whatever country they want, to whatever country they want.

    1. zeynep Post author

      “except allow them to tweet what they want, from whatever country they want, to whatever country they want” assumes that Twitter and other corporations are omnipotent and completely free of jurisdiction related issues. I don’t agree. Governments exist and are powerful entities with real mechanisms of enforcement.

      1. Alysson

        Aren’t the oppressive & despotic governments that exist within the “governments [that] exist” in your above comment the point? Now, instead of being forced to do the work of censoring their citizens themselves, Twitter has adopted a policy that could be abused by governments to get Twitter to do it for them.

        As for their claim to censor only “in the face of a valid and applicable legal order”, my question would be from whom must order come? A U.S. court? If someone lives in Germany and tweets Nazi propaganda from Germany, which is against the law and subject to Twitter’s new censorship policy, what’s the process? Is there any due process involved? Does Twitter plan to vet the legal order to verify the law allegedly broken actually exists within the country it came from? Even if it does, what jurisdiction should that government have over a company not based in its country?

        This is a slippery slope, folks. Especially considering this comes on the heels of a rather hefty investment from a Saudi prince. Coincidence? Maybe. Maybe not. How differently might 2011’s protests in Egypt, Tunisia, et al. turned out if this had been Twitter’s official policy then? To some, Twitter is fun & games…but to others, it was literally the difference between life & death not so long ago.

        1. zeynep Post author

          Governments have always had the ability to censor all of Twitter. In my view, this policy makes it legally harder in many countries while also providing a means to fight it. Twitter can’t solve all free speech issues –nothing on the Internet can. For me, the question is what are the best policies for Internet platforms. Completely ignoring all governments doesn’t seem wise for all cases–but, of course there are some governments one can’t cooperate at all with. (And it’s not like China will be fooled by this limited ability and welcome Twitter).

          1. Alysson

            Which is, in part, why I don’t believe this policy sends the right message. If repressive governments will block Twitter themselves anyway, why bother adopting a policy of selective censorship in a feigned attempt to appease them. Anonymous proxies & the like can still circumvent government attempts to block access, so why endorse the notion that it is acceptable for some governments censor the speech of its citizens at all, selectively or otherwise?

            Furthermore, how long will these tweets be live before Twitter is forced to censor them? If the process is not keyword or algorithm based, as they claim, and tweets will be censored only after having received a legitimate legal order to censor individual tweet(s), won’t that take a considerable amount of time? And, assuming that’s true, what’s the point of even doing it? And while you may say, “Exactly…so what’s the problem?”

            The problem is that Twitter has now publicly accepted a policy of selective censorship toward those who are most desperately in need of a platform that believes in and protects their inherent human right to speak freely.

  13. geekrebel

    I live in Africa. Maybe I’m wrong, but I somehow feel that you would be making a different argument if you were living in one of the countries that will be suffering this censoring.

    I choose to be an “internet citizen”. The internet has the ability to break down borders and through free speech old regimes can be overthrown for the benefit of citizens who happen to be physically in a particular country, while their conscience can be anywhere, thanks to the web.

    In South Africa, a new law is being proposed that would put people in prison for tweeting about the weather (I kid you not, weather information can only be provided by the state weather service). If Twitter were to censor such tweets, it would set a precedent for other online services to do so, or be forced to do so, too.

    1. zeynep Post author

      This post, if anything, was colored by my experiences in Turkey and my study of the Arab uprisings. The problem with your model is that Twitter cannot by itself completely solve issues with such atrocious laws; however, by making such censorship visible and easily circumventable, it is at least giving the global civic society as well as citizens of a country to recognize what’s going on and respond.

  14. Alan Webber

    Nice post, but somewhat naive. What this policy allows twitter to do is to continue to operate in countries with restricted expressions of free speech gaining revenues from those countries while at the same time acting as a tool of the government in suppressing the free expression of information that is valued in a free country. So twitter can cash the checks, increase market share, continue to pass on filtered information, then when certain pieces of information is found to be contrary to the wishes of that government (with the legal reasoning being based upon that same and non-objective government) tangentially notify some people that the tweets they probably should be able to see have been suppressed, and then claim since the rest of the world can see those same tweets that they are still a tool of free speech. Sounds like they get to have their cake and eat it too! Great policy, unless you are one of the people on the receiving end whose tweet was suppressed. And what happens when that same government comes back later and says not only do you have to suppress those tweets, but you can’t let people in this country know they were suppressed. Where do you draw the line?

  15. Pete

    I totally see where you’re coming from and to a large part agree. However I’m concerned how this policy will effect Tor users. Will they need to know the local laws of every exit node point of presence?

    1. zeynep Post author

      Tor nodes is one of the questions we should keep an eye out. My guess is they will appear not to be in the particular country in question so should be okay. We should confirm.

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  17. Simon

    This is a well-written post. I couldn’t agree more that Twitter’s policy is a good model for others to follow.

    What I’d like to see, if I was in a country whose government was combatting open discussion (which I can only assume will very soon nearly every country), is a definite, public list of topics which we’re not allowed to talk about — where they draw the line at free speech vs. unacceptable speech — in simple-to-understand bullet points rather than cover-all-bases jargon. This is not Twitter’s responsibility but the governments.

  18. whatnot

    really, “coffee and bagels”? what a patronising rant, I think Twitter inc. will be enjoying them very much, and then some, will they be blocking tweets on a on-by-one basis? will they emply hordes of censors to sift through all the tweets, or will they just launch some algorithm based on x law that will block them by default, without looking at context or else, I’m sure it will be fit to filter through irony as well !

    Basically you can tweet all you like, and everyone outside your country will be able to see it, why, we will even tell the world why we blocked your tweet, as long as our corporate deals remain intact! will replies be also blocked? Twitter just opened a can of worms that mr-Saudi-300mln-investor will be choking on once there’s a mass exodus, unless they’re hellbent on becoming next weibo, as far as free-speech standards are concerned.

  19. BobD

    “The Internet is not a “virtual” space, and cyberspace is not a planet which can float above all jurisdictions forever.”

    Yes that’s true but it’s not the ideal is it? Is it?

    That’s why there’s a group of hackers who want to launch their own comms satellites for their own “internet” service beyond the reach of any earth governments:


    Nuts perhaps, but I understand their reasons.

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  21. Ari Herzog

    Thank you for sharing what some may call a contrarian view — when it is anything but that. As Jillian York and Alex Howard point out in your links above, while this policy smacks of censorship it is also an improvement over the old policy.

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  23. DavidSB

    A totally patronising article.

    You either have free speech or you do not. There is no half measure; one cannot be half free!

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  26. Leila

    Very good piece, Zeynep. I think what´s idealistic is not your post, but the idea that a company alone can face governments and fight the free speech battle. Good Twitter move in a tough scenario…

  27. ahab

    “this tweet is not available in your country by request of your government.”

    I wonder if blocking tweets deemed unlawful in one country is much different from shutting down all internet access in another country. It’s just a measure to keep people in a country uninformed or put a blanket on bad things instead of doing something against the cause.

    In a democratic society you could always argue a law has to be passed by a majority and it should theoretically a good thing(tm). What about so called not so democratic societies?

    By the change of terms of policy twitter.com can loose their image independent neutral messenger service and become a tool of policy by government.

    So I really don’t see why it’s helpful for free speech advocates.

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  36. Anonymous

    Twitter is on the WORLD wide web. No country owns it and they don’t belong cow tailing to any government. They have done nothing but join the ranks of the Great Firewall of China when they aren’t even located in China. There is NO and I mean NO good reason to censor the internet. They are not the only gig out there. They are definitely not to big to fail. Like every other foolish internet service that gets in bed with Censorship. They will crash and burn and be consigned to the loser section of the net. I hope they enjoy their bankruptcy and I will say good riddance. I don’t care how anyone paints this. It’s absolutely ridiculous for Twitter to censor. I don’t go to twitter to talk about the cute puppy I just saw. We can save that useless dialog for the Shane Dawson’s of the world. I go there to keep up on REAL current events and news. If they censor that then there is absolutely no more reason to go to Twitter at all.

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  42. ingo

    . Good article, try expressing that in 140 characters. This move to clamp down on content that is politically unfavourable to countries will mean that twitter is censored. Further, with genuine tweets being surpressed, false tweets distroting the issue may well be let through, spreading a chaotic melee where there once was instant information and confirmation by third parties of it.

    Somewhat fortunate that I never tweeted. 🙂

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  44. Seo

    Biliyorum Türkçe yorum olduğu için spama girecek fakat ben yinede yazmak istedim…Yazınızda çok haklısınız , konuya doğru bakış açısı ile yaklaşmış ve bizlere anlatmışsınız.

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