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Twitter blackout: A protest born of ignorance — but questions remain [Updated]

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An increasing number of Twitter users are planning to boycott Twitter tomorrow, January 28, in protest of its newly-announced policy that it will censor individual tweets in certain countries that require it to do so. At first glance, this reaction is completely understandable. Censorship is, after all, a bad thing. Free speech should be protected, fought for. Just because a totalitarian regime restricts certain speech doesn’t mean Twitter should automatically bend over and take it. That’s what Twitter used to believe. Right?

I’m not so sure. After reading a number of well-thought-out reactions to the policy change, I’ve become solidly convinced that Saturday’s Twitter blackout (i.e. #TwitterBlackout) is nothing more than ignorant overreaction, a misguided flurry of righteous indignation that ignores the facts.

Now, I’m sure that many of you who support the blackout have just written me off as a vicious swine, set out to trample the rights of the oppressed. And who knows? Maybe I am. But at least hear me out before you storm to my front door with pitchforks and torches.

The rule of law — take it, leave it, or fight it

Like it or not, Twitter is a privately-owned company that is required to abide by the laws of the countries in which it operates. By all factually-valid accounts, Twitter’s new censorship policy restricts speech in the most narrow way possible allowed by the laws of each individual country. Users whose tweets are censored will be notified of government take-down requests. All take-downs will be listed on the watchdog site ChillingEffects.org, along with the reason for their removal. And tweets that are censored in a particular country will still be available for the rest of the world to see.

To further back up this point, here’s what Jillian York, Director of International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, has to say on the matter. From 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 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.

In other words: The governments that require certain tweets to be censored are the problem, not Twitter. Now, you might say that, in an ideal world, Twitter would simply refuse to do business in countries that impose any restrictions on speech whatsoever (which would, incidentally, include the United States). And in fact, it is doing exactly that in the most extreme cases. But I fail to see how eliminating Twitter entirely is an improvement over forcing governments to spend resources on monitoring each and every tweet to make sure it doesn’t violate their specific breed of draconian speech laws. Sure, Twitter refusing to do business in these countries might feel good to those of us who aren’t being censored. I highly doubt, however, that the citizens of repressive regimes will benefit from having no Twitter at all.

Twitter’s censorship policy helps free speech

Not only is Twitter’s new policy designed to censor speech as little as possible, some argue that it actually helps the fight for freedom of expression, not the other way around.

“In my opinion, with this policy, Twitter is fighting to protect free speech on Twitter as best it possibly can,” writes Zeynep Tufekci, a self-described “technosociologist,” and assistant professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. “It also fits with its business model so I am not going to argue they are uniquely angelic, but Twitter does have a good track record. Twitter was the only company which first fought the US government to protect user information in the Wikileaks case, and then informed the users when it lost the fight. In fact, Twitter’s transparency is the only reason we even know of this; other companies, it appears, silently caved and complied.

“Twitter’s latest policy is purposefully designed to allow Twitter to exist as a platform as broadly as possible while making it as hard as possible for governments to censor content, either tweet by tweet or more, all the while giving free-speech advocates a lot of tools to fight censorship.”

Questions remain

Despite all this, there remain questions that Twitter needs to answer. At present, the most valid argument for an anti-Twitter blackout protest seems to rest with whether or not Twitter would allow a free flow of information on its network in Egypt (for example), had the revolution in that country happened after Thursday’s implementation of the new censorship policy. Fear that they wouldn’t seems to lay at the heart of the policy opposition movement. [Updated with Twitter's response below.]

Rather than speculate, I decided to ask Twitter to give an answer to this hypothetical directly, along with questions concerning some other important unknowns. This is what I asked:

To whom it concerns;

In light of the ‘Twitter blackout’ currently being planned for tomorrow, I would like to clarify some of the details surrounding Twitter’s new censorship policy.

First, had the new privacy policy been in place a year ago, would there have been tweets out of Egypt, or any other ‘Arab Spring’ country, that would have been censored under the new policy that were not censored under the previous policy?

Second, the announcement of the new policy on the Twitter blog says that, “As we continue to grow internationally, we will enter countries that have different ideas about the contours of freedom of expression.” Does this mean that the only thing that will change for users who live in countries where Twitter is currently available is that any censored tweet will only be blocked in that country, but not globally? Also, will users in countries where Twitter has been operating for the past year or more see an increase in censored tweets?

Lastly, how will Twitter decide when a tweet is truly infringing on local laws? Will a take-down order automatically result in the tweet being censored, or will consideration be given for each individual tweet? For instance, if a tweet from France mentions Nazis, will the context of the tweet — things like a jokey attitude or sarcasm — be taken into consideration before the tweet is censored?

Update: Twitter’s general counsel, Alex Macgillivray, has responded to my questions, and confirmed what I suspected (and hoped) was the reality of the company’s new policy. As for the first question — would Egyptians, or other Arab Spring activists, have been censored under the new policy? — Macgillivray doesn’t parse words: “No,” he said. They would not have been censored.

Macgillivray also confirmed that limiting the censorship of tweets to the country that issues a take-down order, “plus transparency,” will be the only changes users will see. Whether the number of censored tweets increases depends on the amount of requests for removal Twitter receives, but that greater censorship is not Twitter’s “intent,” said Macgillivray. Finally, Macgillivray said that, for tweets that do prompt take-down requests, Twitter will provide “legal analysis” to determine the validity of the governments’ orders.

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Twitter’s answers to these questions — which are still forthcoming — will, in my mind, determine the validity of Saturday’s Twitter blackout. If the answer is yes, Twitter would have censored more tweets out of Egypt during its revolution, then by all means, pull out your pitchforks.

Conclusion

In the end, Twitter currently appears to be an ally in the fight for free speech. The company’s answers to the questions above may change all of that. (Update: They don’t — see above.) At this point, Twitter remains an invaluable tool for spreading ideas and freedom throughout the world. Our anger about speech restrictions must be directed towards those who require the censoring: oppressive governments around the world. We should be fighting on behalf of Twitter, so that its valuable service can be used unobstructed by repressive regimes, not against it. Staging a Twitter blackout is an understandable gut reaction. But it’s the wrong one.