This article was published on January 27, 2012

Twitter isn’t censoring you. Your government is.

Twitter isn’t censoring you. Your government is.
Nancy Messieh
Story by

Nancy Messieh

Lesotho-born and raised, Nancy Messieh, The Next Web's Middle East Editor, is an Egyptian writer and photographer based in Cairo, Egypt. Fol Lesotho-born and raised, Nancy Messieh, The Next Web's Middle East Editor, is an Egyptian writer and photographer based in Cairo, Egypt. Follow her on Twitter, her site or Google+ or get in touch at [email protected]

It’s barely been a day since Twitter made the announcement that, going forward, tweets could be censored based on the local laws that govern a user’s location, and the rumour mill is hard at work trying to figure out the reasons behind the decision.

At the same time, many Twitter users are calling for a Twitter Blackout on January 28, vowing to keep Twitter quiet tomorrow.

While Twitter cited the example of the ban of pro-Nazi content in Germany and France, could there be more to it than meets the eye?

Why is Twitter doing this?

Taking a look at the hashtag, #TwitterCensored, a lot of fingers were very quick to point straight at the recent investment by Saudi Prince, Alwaleed bin Talal, without considering the fact that his stake in the company is a mere 3%. Alex Macgillivray, the general counsel of Twitter, has also confirmed to BoingBoing that the move has nothing to do with any investments that Twitter has received.

While up until now, Twitter is said to have only blocked content that violates copyright laws, the change expands to include tweets that violate the laws of any given country, provided that they are asked to remove the offending tweets.

One possible reason is that Twitter has been consistently targeted by governments for allowing what is considered “illegal” content to be shared via the site. Israeli law firm, Shurat HaDin threatened to sue the microblogging site if it didn’t boot accounts with ties to Hezbollah and al-Qaeda. Twitter has also seen increasing pressure from US politicians, with Congressman Lieberman decrying the fact that the Taliban has a very vocal Twitter presence.

Twitter obviously used carefully selected words to convey the changes – at the end of the day blocking tweets can’t be defined in any terms other than censorship. But it is a half-hearted form of censorship that seems to appease the lawmakers but has no real direct effect on the user.

Does this affect activists?

Much has been made of the use of social media in the Middle Eastern uprisings, particularly in Egypt. In 2011, Twitter proved to be one of the essential tools used to broadcast news from Egypt to the world, while a year before that, Cairo-based activists used Twitter to coordinate protests and warn each other of security presence around the city. Twitter provides one of the easiest mobile methods to disseminate information online today.

While it may be understandable to withhold racist, hateful or threatening content, Twitter’s definition is all-encompassing and has the potential to take down perfectly acceptable content.

Following the uprising in Egypt, the government passed a law criminalizing protests. What if a law were passed that criminalizes online criticism of authorities? It’s no stretch of imagination, not when bloggers have been arrested and imprisoned for exercising their freedom of speech. In that case, the government in question could tell Twitter what is considered acceptable content.

So does this mean that Twitter has given governments complete power to control what their citizens see on Twitter?

Is it really a big deal?

It’s very easy to criticize Twitter for this move, but the fact remains that in one day, it provided users with the news that content could be censored by location, while also giving them a simple method, one-click away, to make sure that the tweets do flow, regardless of location.

The backlash has been harsh, and Twitter has even been accused of committing social suicide, assuming that an algorithm would be taking care of the extremely sensitive task of censoring content. In it’s announcement however, Twitter points out:

“…if we receive a valid and properly scoped request from an authorized entity, it may be necessary to reactively withhold access to certain content in a particular country from time to time.”

Twitter is not placing an automated censorship system in place, but rather will only comply with what it sees are valid requests.

Twitter has actually found something of a compromise. With the use of a technicality, Twitter is able to safeguard the company legally, comply with governmental requests, and still make the content available to users with the workaround.

The alternative would be to see Twitter blocked entirely in countries which consider its content to be a violation of their local laws. If the finger should be pointed at anyone, it isn’t Twitter, but rather the lawmakers that make it possible to censor content in the first place.

Twitter is viewing a hyperventilation of sorts, going to the point of calling for a Twitter boycott for one day, but as Jillian York points out, the announcement is not a significant change to Twitter’s existing policies.

The current attack on Twitter is no different from the common, but misguided, accusations that are often heard, that Twitter censors certain hashtags from making it into its Trending Topics, when in fact that is an entirely algorithm-based system, driven mainly by news outlets, and represent “topics that are immediately popular, rather than topics that have been popular for a while or on a daily basis.”

Taking a look at Google’s Transparency Report, which we reviewed here, you’ll find that Google is already exercising similar practices, having withheld content locally in the past in India, while refusing some requests to remove content, in the US for example.

It is not clear whether or not Twitter will do the same, and we could do well to give them the benefit of the doubt, before burning them at the stake.

Get the TNW newsletter

Get the most important tech news in your inbox each week.

Also tagged with