Twitter: Cold-blooded censors or bad communicators?

Twitter announced on 26 January — ironically the day after the one-year anniversary of the Arab Spring on #25Jan — that it has now enabled country-by-country censorship of individual Tweets. Previously, it could only remove a Tweet globally.

Unsurprisingly, Twitter users are angry at what they see as Twitter bending to the will of censorious governments and betraying its users, particularly those in countries who depend on tools like Twitter to communicate and organise. However big Twitter’s role in the Arab Spring actually was, Twitter certainly is an essential part of the campaigning toolkit for protesters around the world.

Why would Twitter jeopardise its reputation and risk the wrath of the very organisers they have previously supported?

The obvious answer might be that China’s Sina Weibo now has 250 mn users, so perhaps Twitter's eyeing up China as a lucrative new market to enter? Internet companies have struggled to find a way to exist in China, given the government's fondness for censorship, and geolocated censorship could pave the way for Twitter.

Or maybe it's because Saudi Prince Alwaleed bought a $300 mn stake in Twitter? Could Twitter be caving to the pressure of a new investor?

The answer to the China question is: "Very Unlikely". It would take more than geolocated censorship for Twitter to gain a foothold in China. And the answer to Prince Alwaleed is an emphatic "No", from Alex Macgillivray, Twitter’s QC, who commented on BoingBoing:

Three quick things:

#1: I can confirm that this has nothing to do with any investor (primary or secondary).

#2: This is not a change in philosophy. #jan25

#3: you'll see notices about withheld content at: so you'll get to figure out whether we've "caved" or not with data. This change gives us the ability to keep content up even if we have to withhold it somewhere.

Twitter is good at making big, sweeping, positive statements about its service. AFP Photo

So what’s going on?

It is most likely that this is just Twitter being Twitter and managing a massive fail in communications. Twitter is good at making big, sweeping, positive statements about its service; witness their blog post from 28 January 2011, The Tweets Must Flow:

"Our goal is to instantly connect people everywhere to what is most meaningful to them. For this to happen, freedom of expression is essential. Some Tweets may facilitate positive change in a repressed country, some make us laugh, some make us think, some downright anger a vast majority of users. We don't always agree with the things people choose to tweet, but we keep the information flowing irrespective of any view we may have about the content."

But Twitter has historically been very bad at understanding how the nuances of their business decisions will be perceived by their users. In Twitter's latest blog post, they fail to explain two very important points:

1. What is the existing process for the censorship of Tweets?
2. How will this process change with the new geolocated censorship?

There is no doubt that Twitter is already taking down content when ordered to do so by a court. That's just part of the reality of doing business online. Google, for example, takes down content when forced to, but it also produces the Google Transparency Report to show who asked for what kind of content to be removed and how often those requests were acted on.

But Twitter hasn't told us what kinds of acts of censorship it normally deals with, or how. Are they subject to many court orders telling them to take content down? Do they take down stuff when asked nicely by rich celebrities, or when threatened by corporations? What about your average Jo? Does her request to have a tweet removed get serious consideration? Twitter doesn’t mention this in their blog post.

Without understanding that context, we can’t understand what this announcement really means. We can’t tell if this move will decrease the number of tweets made unavailable to Twitter users, or whether it will enable more censorship.

The assumption being made by the Twittersphere is the latter: That Twitter is now embracing censorship with open arms, snuggling up to repressive regimes and giving the green light to all and sundry to start nominating tweets for removal. With that interpretation in mind, it's no surprise that there are now calls for a #TwitterBlackout on 28 January, the anniversary of its blog post celebrating the Arab Spring.

In the meantime, it turns out that circumventing this 'censorship' is currently trivially easy: simply change your country setting to a more liberal regime.

Personally, my jury is still out. I can believe that Twitter has just managed to create its own epic PR fail more readily than I can imagine that they have suddenly done a massive ethical U-turn. This is, after all, the company that delayed server maintenance during the Iranian elections at the request of the US State Department. I won't be joining in a protest against Twitter until I understand exactly what they are doing, but if I find out that they are enabling more censorship, I'll be the first to shout it from the rooftops.

Twitter must get out ahead of this blackout and explain, in fine detail, what it does with requests for censorship and how this policy changes that. It must produce its own Transparency Report now, not just rely on people checking to see how many cease and desist notices it gets.

Updated Date: Jan 30, 2012 13:09 PM

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