By Craig A. Newman*
When Twitter Inc. announced its decision last week to censor tweets that offend country-specific content restrictions, the backlash from free speech advocates and users alike was prompt and unequivocal. Twitter, critics charged, was losing its way and compromising its commitment to free speech in favor of corporate expansion and profits.
Lost amid this tempest, however, is the fact that Twitter’s new policy – whether or not one agrees with it – creates not only a window into government censorship activities but also opens up a potentially meaningful source of information – censored content – that would otherwise remain hidden from public view.
That was then, this is now
Twitter has always self-censored by removing illegal content. It inspects an average of roughly 1 billion tweets daily, looking for porn, users impersonating other users, threats of violence and other violations of its standards.
Its new policy, however, requires that if a tweet violates local content restriction laws, the tweet will be deleted or greyed out. Twitter users in that country will not be able to see it.
Instead, a notice will be posted apprising that the tweet has been deleted or, as Twitter says, “withheld” at the request of government authorities. Twitter will not pre-screen or monitor tweets but only delete them reactively.
The new policy, aided by Twitter’s technology, now permits it to block a tweet country-by-country. Before this, the only option was for Twitter to remove the tweet worldwide.
In implementing its new policy, Twitter has teamed with Chilling Effects (www.chillingeffects.org), which is sponsored by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a prominent free speech coalition comprising leading universities in the United States. When a tweet is blocked, users will be able to go to the Chilling Effects website to find out why that particular tweet was censored.
Consequences, foreseen and otherwise
By harnessing search and other data management technologies, Twitter and its users can relatively easily monitor which countries are censoring what content. Knowing which topics matter to whom raises all sorts of related issues, including many of potential interest to any global enterprise.
Consider, for example, the kind of data that might be mined from censored tweets:
• Let’s say a company has employees, distributors and customers in Country Y. Country Y suddenly clamps down on a broad range of tweets, suggesting possible civil unrest. Important information to know.
• Or, Country X——rich in a natural resource——has banned tweets that relate to that resource. This information might be a clue to turn to other sources.
Given the important role real-time tweets have played in breaking news events, avenues to circumvent these restrictions are likely. When a tweet is banned, for instance, nothing stops users from changing their Twitter country code to pretend that they are in geographic location that does not ban that particular tweeted content. Other workarounds are also likely. It is only a matter of time until websites pop up —— accessible in all countries —— that collect and publish the banned tweets for all to see.
First Amendment issues
Twitter describes itself as a “real-time information network” that connects its users to “the latest information.” Its decision to expand into countries that impose censorship restrictions highlights the uneasy tension between free speech and its own business objectives.
The company could, of course, play hardball and refuse to do business in countries with censorship regimes. But would that decision be worse for free speech rights than agreeing to observe local content restrictions? Is some speech better than no speech? Does capturing and highlighting the censored tweet —— what is silenced —— give the banned content a voice in and of itself?
Some critics of Twitter’s decision are, no doubt, disappointed that the micro-blogger would bow to the pressure of governments that require censorship. But Twitter’s decision to march ahead and expand its presence into these countries has the potential to draw attention to the censorship activities in these countries, highlight exactly what type of speech is being suppressed and, paradoxically, create a new layer of intelligence that otherwise would not exist.
*Craig A. Newman is a Litigation Partner with Richards Kibbe & Orbe LLP and the Chairman of the National Advisory Board at the Cronkite School of Journalism & Mass Communication at Arizona State University.