Twitter Censorship a Back-Flip on Human Rights

By Zuleyka Zevallos

Twitter censorship
Twitter censorship

One year ago, Twitter celebrated that it would uphold free speech as a ‘human right‘ for countries that had censorship laws. On the 26th of January, Twitter announced a back-flip on its previous public pronouncement that it was the bastion of free speech:

As we continue to grow internationally, we will enter countries that have different ideas about the contours of freedom of expression. Some differ so much from our ideas that we will not be able to exist there. Others are similar but, for historical or cultural reasons, restrict certain types of content, such as France or Germany, which ban pro-Nazi content.

Twitter’s blog includes a link to Chilling Effects, a site that alerts users about what content has been flagged for censorship. The complaints currently listed are about media content. What will happen when the complaints are about freedom of expression for various political activist groups?

Business (Not) As Usual

Censorship. Image by IsaacMao via Flickr
Censorship. Image by IsaacMao via Flickr

The language Twitter uses is about weeding out ‘Nazis’ but its decision to comply with censorship is clearly a business consideration. Yes, Twitter is a business – but since it has been selling itself as a champion of international freedom and communication, its new policy is compromising one of its strongest marketing points. As Forbes magazine pointed out, the Nazi example is a poor misrepresentation of what the changes might mean.

That’s the example Twitter offered, and it’s a pretty convenient one. Who’s going to side with the Nazis? But there are plenty of other, less-palatable laws 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, in theory, be asked to observe both laws. Absurd, yes, but hardly unprecedented. Google already blocks search results and other content in a number of countries around the globe for similar reasons. But it’s different when it’s Twitter.

Some commentators note that Twitter’s announcement is about business transparency: Twitter is merely informing users of its changed practices, which are not dissimilar to the censorship compliance of other internet giants such as Google. Director General of the “Legenda” media agency Anton Korobkov-Zemlyansky said on Voice of Russia:

I believe that by introducing censorship, Twitter’s administration is just trying to be on the safe side. It is trying to protect itself from possible scandals or lawsuits… we are already living in a rather censored world. Insults or threats are illegal in any event, so people are starting to think carefully what they can write or say and what they’d better not

Jillian York, of the Electronic Frontier Foundation was quoted in The Guardian as saying that Twitter ‘is not above the law‘:

Google lays out its orders in its transparency report. Other companies are less forthright. In any case, Twitter has two options in the event of a request: Fail to comply, and risk being blocked by the government in question, or comply [read: censor] And if they have ‘boots on the ground’, so to speak, in the country in question? No choice.

The Guardian notes that Google, Yahoo and Facebook all have the similar censorship policies in place:

Yahoo Was sued in 2000 by French civil liberties groups over the sale of Nazi memorabilia via its auction facility… Google Is able to ban content by country: in China it would note when a set of search results had been censored (at the government’s order). In Germany and France, searches are filtered. Facebook Can restrict access to content based on who is viewing it: if it’s legal in one country but not in another, Facebook can prevent its viewing in the latter. eBay In 2000 the auction site changed its policy after public pressure so that Nazi goods and memorabilia cannot not be traded.

There’s been speculation that Twitter’s decision to engage in censorship is due to Saudi Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal investment in the company, which was announced in December. While Bin Talal’s investment is hefty, his investment only accounts for 3% of Twitter’s company share.  Conspiracy theories about Bin Talal’s influence over Twitter’s current policy change are likely to be unfounded.

Twitter’s decision is likely to be less about giving into political pressure from a single source and more about expanding its business reach into new markets. The ramifications to censor tweets, however, may have detrimental long term effects, as the applications of this new policy have yet to be tested.

International Ramifications

Some social media analysts, such as commentators on Mashable, argue that Twitter’s policy is not necessarily negative, as it means individual countries will be censored rather than having Twitter’s service blocked for an entire country. A few countries that have social media bans in place are still able to get around censorship laws because they have access to other technologies. A case in point is China, where social media use has grown by 300%. When taking this into consideration, perhaps Twitter’s new policy will not disrupt freedom of expression.

Via Forbes.

Then again, in countries where governments control technology infrastructures in other ways, Twitter’s censorship only adds further obstacles to information sharing, with devastating effects. For example, the Democratic of Congo banned text messages last year, which meant that its hearing impaired citizens were in further danger as they could not warn one another about violence outbreaks. In contexts such as these, Twitter is further enabling the oppression of freedom that it previously promoted.

Social media has played a widely-debated role in several political protests around the world. Whatever its true impact on the Occupy movement, the “Arab Spring” and other regime changes, Twitter has enabled the organisation of social activism because it offers an instant means to exchange information. It’s too early to tell how Twitter’s censorship policy may play out, but as Reporters Without Borders has noted, Twitter’s decision “just opens up the floodgates” of political misuse. The reality is that any censorship changes are likely to have profoundly harmful consequences for people who live in countries that already deny them the liberty to communicate.

The changes to Twitter policy are not trivial. Countries such as Australia, the USA and Britain have autonomy to use social media in ways that are taken for granted. Twitter’s censorship policies are unlikely to have direct impact in liberal democracies, but given the recent backlash over internet censorship when the SOPA and PIPA legislation were being fought over, censorship in one country has the capacity to impact on communication all over the world. Spokeswoman for Reporters Without Borders, Heather Blake, told BBC that it had concerns about the new measures.

In the bigger scheme of things it just opens up the floodgates… It allows for Twitter or other internet organisations to censor things. Freedom of information, and freedom of the press can be compromised. It would be interesting to ask them what research they have done to show this will help in any way by censoring tweets within countries. Is it problematic, or are they getting pressured by certain organisations or certain regimes within the countries in order to continue to function there?

As Amnesty International recently argued – internet access is a human right. Allowing governments to censor content on Twitter in oppressive regimes today will mean that governments and corporations will have grounds to censor content all over the world tomorrow.

As a business choice, Twitter’s decision to participate in censorship may potentially hurt its brand, depending on what comes of the current backlash and the move some groups have made to boycott Twitter. What made Twitter distinct from other news services was that it was positioned as an international beacon for “citizen journalism”. Twitter’s policy changes mean that it now treads on tricky, dangerous ground. Twitter might well be falling into line with other internet services; it might simply have made its practices more visible through its announcement; but it also makes clear that its previous commitment to human rights can be bought and sold.

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Note: I first published this post on Storify on the 28th of January.

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