Twitter has gained something of a reputation as being a tool for social change, after its prominence in the disputed Iranian elections in 2009, the Arab Spring of 2011, and as a growing piece of the political discussion in this country. Key to this has been Twitter’s universality; a Tweet from Tehran or Cairo can appear to anyone around the world. Now, Twitter has announced new changes that will allow them to hide tweets in countries with differing interpretations of “freedom of expression.” Yeah, that pretty much sounds like censorship.
In their blog post announcing the changes, Twitter takes pains to paint this as an inclusive effort that still retains their stated views on freedom of speech. Starting today, Twitter will be able to hide tweets that break local speech laws, but those tweets will still appear globally. From Twitter:
Until now, the only way we could take account of those countries’ limits was to remove content globally. Starting today, we give ourselves the ability to reactively withhold content from users in a specific country — while keeping it available in the rest of the world. We have also built in a way to communicate transparently to users when content is withheld, and why.
These withheld tweets will be specially marked, and the sender will be notified that their tweet will not be visible.
Though these changes seem to be an awkward fit alongside Twitter’s aspirations for a free and open exchange of ideas, the company is taking great pains to portray the new censorship powers as a positive move forward. The fact that withheld tweets will still be viewable globally would, it seems, sidestep attempts by governments to keep unpopular news from leaking to the rest of the world. It would also, however, severely hamper Twitter’s role as a future organizer for mass meetings and protests as it was in Tehran and Egypt.
Furthermore, there is a sense from the announcement that having a limited Twitter is better than no Twitter at all. By having this system in place, Twitter can now expand its business to new areas, bringing more people into the conversation. And perhaps the removal of tweets will be so rare as to make the power to do so moot.
To illustrate the kinds of speech laws Twitter will be able to respect, the company points out laws in France and Germany that prohibit pro-Nazi speech. While that is a benign example, there are other countries with far stricter and far more restrictive speech laws. Forbes points out:
Twitter is now in a position to enforce, like Thailand’s ban on anything deemed insulting to the king, or Turkey’s similar prohibition on defaming its national founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Speaking of Turkey, it outlaws any discussion of the Armenian genocide, while France just passed a bill making it a crime to deny the genocide happened. So now Twitter can now, in theory, be asked to observe both laws.
Twitter obviously believes that this is a worthwhile exchange, and it is no doubt going to be good for business. Google, for instance, was finally able to expand into the growing and lucrative Chinese market only after it agreed to make major concessions on what appeared in search requests. For its part, Twitter will have to negotiate new territory as an arbiter of free speech, walking a line between concession and encouraging communication. Meanwhile, users in countries with highly restrictive speech laws will probably continue sidestepping censorship with Tor and other proxy networks.