Saturday, January 28, 2012

Twitter’s New Policy and Internet Censorship

This Thursday, Twitter announced its new policy via its official blog post titled Tweets still must flow, stating that Twitter will give themselves “the ability to reactively withhold content from users in a specific country — while keeping it available in the rest of the world.” Although Twitter had chosen a relatively uncontroversial example – pro-Nazi content has to be banned in France and Germany for historical reasons – the blog post sparked huge controversy among the Internet community. A large number of users organized a service boycott today via tweets under the hash tag #TwitterBlackout.

A question that naturally arises is whether it is justified to censor certain tweets. On the one hand, deleting tweets that contain links for a pirated movie after receiving complaints from Hollywood is required by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and is generally accepted by the Internet community; on the other hand, even being able to remove pro-Nazi tweets can have dire consequences, because it is very difficult to define which tweets are pro-Nazi and which tweets deserve censorship, as shown in this article.

Although this new policy may seem sudden, Twitter actually admitted removing “illegal” tweets a year ago. Just like many other companies such as Google and Facebook, Twitter has to face the dilemma of whether to censor certain content or to risk being removed from a country completely. Both Facebook and Twitter are currently blocked in countries such as Iran and China, because of their reluctance to comply with censorship. Google quitted China in 2010 also due to similar reasons. Facebook and Google certainly have made their positions clear, but Twitter’s policy change prompts us to reconsider this dilemma: censoring or risking removal?

Of course, a free social network is just so powerful and useful due to its small diameter and high connectivity – a message advocating social change can propagate through the whole network within just a few retweets. One can argue that revolutions such as the Arab spring may never have happened without an uncensoring Twitter, but some people have suggested otherwise from an interesting perspective: Twitter really only censors tweets in certain countries and these tweets will still be available globally. Thus, if an activist tweets against an oppressive regime, his or her tweet is still globally visible and can at least impact people outside of the country. This is far better than having the whole Twitter website blocked by the regime, as people in the regime still get to use the technology and may utilize it when big social changes do occur, not to mention the fact that Twitter is actually teaching everyone how to get around the restrictions.

There is certainly a tradeoff between trying to keep the website totally free, and trying to reach as many people in the world as possible. It may be really interesting after a few years to see the different impact of different policies of Twitter, Facebook and Google.

1 comment:

  1. There seem to be lots of interesting political-tech interactions this term. It will be particularly interesting to see how this pans out...