Opinionista Jacques Rousseau 1 February 2012

Twitter censorship, the Streisand Effect and three fingers pointing back

It’s sometimes difficult to escape the feeling that we’re living under the tyranny of the perpetually indignant. Taking the time to think things through and developing a measured response to some hot-button issue is a luxury we’re infrequently allowed.

Not only do media outlets thrive on sensation, but readers are also often eager to be the first to express outrage at some new conspiracy, malfeasance or instance of ineptitude.
And so those hot-button issues can get generated out of thin air, then recycled and amplified in the echo-chamber of Twitter and other social media. Last week Twitter itself became the latest subject of hysterical misinterpretation when it announced new policies for blocking tweets. As of 26 January, tweets (or Twitter accounts) can be blocked on a country-by-country basis rather than globally, as was the case before software refinements made selective blocking possible.

The Forbes’ headline “Twitter commits social suicide” summed up many of the responses, which made accusations of charges of censorship and complicity in killing free speech trend under the hashtag #TwitterBlackout. Some even suggested that the once-plucky underdog had now sold out, and was caving in to the (purported) illiberal demands of new investor, Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal.

But Bin Talal only purchased a 3% stake in Twitter, and we have no evidence he has any interest in dictating policy. We also have no evidence Twitter’s policy change is a bad thing for free speech. In fact, the opposite seems a more plausible reading, which makes it more the shame most of the indignant seem to not have bothered to read the policy itself.

It is not the case that Twitter will be monitoring your delight at having found your car keys (in the last place you looked!) or your #occupation of some patch of suburban scrubland. Any blocking (or censorship, for that is what it amounts to) will be reactive rather than proactive, where a party with legal grounds for requesting a takedown of tweets or an account lodges an application with Twitter to do so.

This has always been Twitter’s policy. For example, evidenced claims by film studios of copyright infringement have led to tweets being deleted. The difference between the old policy and the new is that, instead of those tweets being deleted globally, they will only be blocked in the country where that tweet violated the law. If you tweet some pro-Nazi sentiment in Germany (where doing so is illegal), Germans won’t be able to see the tweet, but the rest of the world will.

In other words, more people can now see the tweet than was the case before. And if you’re planning a revolution on Twitter, you could always tell your fellow Bolsheviks to follow Twitter’s own instructions for changing your country settings to “worldwide”, thereby allowing you to see any tweets, no matter how repressive your situation might be.

What’s more, users in countries where tweets have been blocked will be able to see that something or someone has been blocked. And here Twitter has again done its best to increase rather than reduce transparency, by committing to posting the details of who requested the censorship at Chilling Effects. The Streisand effect shows us how exposing attempts at censorship will tend to increase the dissemination of the undesirable material – here made easy not only by changing your Twitter settings, but also by the fact that the same undesirable material, if originating outside the censoring country, will not be blocked by Twitter.

In short, then, Twitter has done nothing to increase the likelihood or frequency of censorship, but instead attempted to obey the laws pertaining in certain jurisdictions without affecting information flow in others. It’s a positive move, and is being conducted in a fully transparent and defensible way. On balance, there’s good reason to suppose it could result in increased protection of free speech.

But for the #TwitterBlackout crowd, evidence takes a back-seat to indignation. Some indignation is justified – it shouldn’t be the case that governments attempt to censor speech (arguably, outside of some narrowly defined cases). That they do so is not Twitter’s fault, and there is nothing Twitter can do about it. Taking a stand against censorship by refusing to obey local laws would simply result in the complete unavailability of the service, as is the case in China.

Us advocates of free speech, and those campaigning for other causes, can forget that our idealised version of the world collides with the real worlds of politics and pragmatism. It’s not Twitter’s job to share your or my ideological commitments, and to run the risk of being shut down in more places than only China. Here, it’s governments that are censoring, and Twitter is doing is best to minimise the effects of that censorship while spreading its global reach for the sake of profit. That’s its job. DM

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