The social networking service Twitter announced a new tool today that allows it to selectively censor users’ tweets based on a host of criteria. This has taken a lot of heat from some critics but there’s another side to this that deserves attention. The company’s trademark 140 character messages have taken the Internet by storm, but there are many complications when it comes to laws restricting speech around the world. What’s legal to say in one country is illegal in others. This new tool allows more people to see what people have to say, because it can filter messages by country. “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,” Twitter wrote in a blog post. “We have also built in a way to communicate transparently to users when content is withheld, and why.” That’s a major improvement over the old design, even if it does lend a hand to repressive regimes. But some countries have legitimate reasons for imposing speech restrictions, while others are less so. The United States reserves the right to restrict speech that incites violence and France and Germany prohibit any speech that involves Nazis and related hate groups. Those seem perfectly reasonable to me, but are still censorship.
The thing is, Twitter has to play by a lot of different rules and it’s not always easy to walk that line. Jillian York, who works for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, had this to say on her personal blog:
Let’s be clear: This is censorship. There’s no way around that. But alas, Twitter is not above the law. Just about every company hosting user-generated content has, at one point or another, gotten an order or government request to take down content. Google lays out its orders in itsTransparency 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.
So, to all those who are getting ready to protest Twitter tomorrow with a Wikipedia-inspired blackout, go ahead, but your efforts might be better targeted at the countries actually dictating the restrictions. Twitter is, literally and figuratively, the messenger. They have some social responsibility in helping to open the world to more dialogue, but it’s not their mandate.