Twitter Censorship Move Sparks Backlash: Is It Justified?

An example of what Twitter's censorship will look like

Internet scorn for Twitter’s announcement Thursday that it would censor tweets was swift and unforgiving.

But even free-speech and other experts were divided Friday on the service’s move that it might censor tweets if required by law in ”countries that have different ideas about the contours of freedom of expression.”

Like Yahoo and Google before it — and for the same reason, becoming a global powerhouse — Twitter has confronted an inconvenient truth: Freedom of expression is sacrosanct and protected by the Constitution in the United States, but in other parts of the world, not so much.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which typically has no patience with any sort of censorship, saw Twitter’s announcement as little more than stating the obvious. ”I’m a little puzzled by the kind of freak out that kind of appears to be happening. Companies have to abide by the law where they are,” said Cindy Cohn, the legal director of the digital rights group.

The ACLU wasn’t as forgiving. ”The countries that engage in censorship are precisely the ones in which open and neutral social media platforms are most critical,” said Aden Fine, an ACLU staff attorney. “We hope Twitter will think carefully before acceding to any specific requests by those governments to censor content simply because they want to interfere with their citizens’ access to information and ideas.”

And the Twitterverse was beside itself. “When you become the agent of the censor, there are problems there,” said Twitter power user and media consultant/critic Jeff Jarvis.

There’s an online protest scheduled for Saturday, noted under the hashtag #TwitterBlackout, in which Twitter users are urged not to tweet in protest to Twitter’s announcement.

It isn’t clear why Twitter chose this moment to articulate this policy, and the company isn’t saying exactly where and when it might begin censoring. In the United States, Twitter abides by countless takedown notices from Hollywood and the recording industry. Obviously, silencing those tweets containing copyrighted material isn’t the same as blacking out calls for government protest or upheaval, but it’s censorship nevertheless.

It’s easy to suggest that Twitter — whose service was instrumental in the Arab uprisings last year — should never censor and instead subject their employees to arrest or just simply go dark in countries that demand it. Bit it’s a tough call. Google struggled with China’s requirement to suppress certain searches — like for the Tiananmen Square crackdown — and after a confusing period where it seemed to suggest it would abandon the huge and potentially massive market settled on a contorted solution in which Google simply redirects all users to an unfiltered search site in Hong Kong.

In the public’s eye, the nuance of abiding by local laws — which may seem abhorrent — versus leaving such a market and ceding it to less-scrupulous competitors, is sometimes lost.

“I don’t think this means Twitter is going to be in a conspiracy with repressive governments,” said Jeff Neuburger, co-chair of the technology, media and communication law practice at the Proskauer firm. “I think a lot depends on how Twitter uses this technology.”

Following the backlash, Twitter on Friday said that it will not filter tweets, but instead will be “reactive only, that is we will withhold specific content only when required to do so in response to what we believe to be a valid and applicable legal request.” If Twitter users are in a country where a tweet has been disappeared, an alert box will show saying “Tweet withheld.” The tweet will be visible in countries where it was not censored.

Cohn said Twitter was at least being transparent. Facebook, for example, also regularly removes content for a variety of reasons to comport with local laws, too. She added that Twitter’s announcement underscores the need for anti-censoring technologies like Tor, which reroutes IP addresses as a workaround to a country’s censorship tactics.

“I think Twitter is telling us some unfortunate truths,” Cohn said. “Rather than shoot the messenger, we need to put focus on to make sure we have really robust anti-censorship technologies people can use.”