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Twitter Isn’t Evil

January 31, 2012 |
Supreme Court justices, presidents, prime ministers, and dictators for life will decide much of the future of free speech. But so will smart people with big glasses and purple shirts in Silicon Valley conference rooms.
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Twitter, it is said, has become evil. The company announced at the end of last week that it would censor tweets on a country-by-country basis. If a government really doesn’t like your hundred and forty characters, Twitter may white them out. Tweetavists reacted with outrage and warned darkly of unreported massacres in Syria. A #twitterblackout protest was organized. Forbes proclaimed that the company was committing “social suicide.” The information and communication technology minister in Thailand, where officials really don’t like you mocking the monarch, announced that it was a “welcome development.”

The #twitterblackout fizzled quickly, and rightfully so. In countries where Twitter does business, the company has to follow local laws. And if the local laws say it has to censor, it must either do so or leave. And, to Twitter’s credit, it’s going to only censor when it gets specific and valid requests to do so; it’s not going to hire robots or (deeply bored) humans to troll German posts looking for pro-Nazi jokes. It’s also not going to hide the bowdlerization. When Twitter gets a request to censor, it will post the request on chillingeffects.org. It will also make it clear to the user and the user’s followers when something verboten has been said. It also will only censor a tweet for readers in that particular country. The policy is limited, open, and realistic. That’s pretty darn good.

Still, the uproar has forced people to recognize once again the importance of the policies set by technological platforms—such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter. Supreme Court justices, presidents, prime ministers, and dictators for life will decide much of the future of free speech. But so will smart people with big glasses and purple shirts in Silicon Valley conference rooms. Free speech laws and policies change slowly. Companies can reset standards quickly. It’s useful for them to be reminded how much these issues matter as they balance business interests, reputation, and morals.

There’s also a question for Twitter that’s still pending: Will it enter countries where it will likely be forced to censor? It can stay out—not building offices, not selling advertising—and then just let users post whatever they want. Or it can go in and have to obey the onerous requests. Tim Wu, a law professor at Columbia, told me, “In those countries, Twitter has no particular reason or legal duty to follow the laws of that nation, and I don’t think Twitter should agree to be bound by their censorship laws, even for their citizens. Obviously, it has the right to, but I don’t agree its good policy.” If Twitter has no corporate presence in Syria, it can let users go to Twitter.com and post whatever they want. If a censorship request comes in, Twitter can ignore it. (If the government threatens to shut off all access to the site, then, perhaps, Twitter can choose to censor.)

Last night, in an interview, Twitter’s C.E.O., Dick Costolo, said that the company couldn’t foresee going into China, a country where a competitor, Weibo, has censors who actively work “to keep things clean online.” According to Costolo, “We would love for people in China to be able to use Twitter the way we want them to … but the current environment doesn’t enable us to do that.” That surely reflects, partly, just how hard it is for tech companies to do business in China. But it also reflects Twitter’s recognition of how much its users care about maintaining open conversations online. And that’s a very good thing.

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