Making Sense of Twitter ‘Censorship’

Jillian York, the Director of International Freedom of Expression at the EFF, has a good (and quick) thought on Twitter’s recent decision to ‘censor’ some Tweets in particular geographical areas.

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 the event that a company chooses to comply with government requests and censor content, there are a number of mitigating steps the company can take.  The most important, of course, is transparency, something that Twitter has promised.  Google is also transparent in its content removal (Facebook? Not so much).  Twitter’s move to geolocate their censorship is also smart, given the alternative (censoring it worldwide, that is) – particularly since it appears a user can manually change his or her location.

I tend to agree with her position. I’m not particularly happy that Twitter is making this move but can appreciate that from an Internet governance – and national sovereignty – position that Twitter’s new policy ‘fits’ with international practices. Further, the company’s unwillingness to globally censor is positive, and limits that damage caused by state-mandated censorship.

Admittedly, I’d like to see the company go a bit further that is in line with their drive towards transparency. Perhaps if you did a keyword search in a particular geographic area you might receive a notice reading, “Some items in this search have been censored in your region” or something along those lines. Still, Twitter is arguably the best ‘good’ company that is prominent in the social networking environment at the moment, so I’ll hope they make additional steps towards full transparency rather than lambasting the company for its policy changes right now.