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Twitter’s censorship policy is a clever survival game
SATARUPA PAUL  5th Feb 2012

Illustration by Sandeep Adhwaryu

ess than a week had gone by after netizens stood up with Wikipedia, Google and other Internet majors to protest against the US Congressional bills of SOPA and PIPA (Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP-Act). Even as we applauded the victory of our campaigns that led the Congress to finally cave in and postpone legislation on the piracy bills indefinitely, one of our very own dealt a sudden blow from inside and the celebrations ended abruptly. On January 26, Twitter announced a new policy that will enable country-by-country censorship of individual tweets.

"As we continue to grow internationally, we will enter countries that have different ideas about the contours of freedom of expression," Twitter wrote on its blog. "Some differ so much from our ideas that we will not be able to exist there. Others are similar but, for historical or cultural reasons, restrict certain types of content, such as France or Germany, which ban pro-Nazi content." The blog went on to elaborate, "Until now, the only way we could take account of those countries' limits was to remove content globally. Starting today, we give ourselves the ability to reactively withhold content from users in a specific country — while keeping it available in the rest of the world."

The world cried foul and a global outrage broke out, flooding the Internet with overwhelmingly negative responses from users who, unsurprisingly, distilled it down to — Twitter giving in to censorship. Speculations ran high as to what might have prompted the proponent of free speech to perform a volte-face on the very policy that had successfully facilitated the Arab Spring uprisings. Some reports came up with the hypothesis that Twitter might be warming up to the idea of entering restrictive regimes like China. Others simply wondered if Twitter was caving in to pressure from its new high profile investor, Prince Alwaleed of Saudi Arabia who bought a $300 million stake in it recently.

"But what everyone failed to understand, initially at least, was that Twitter was just playing a clever game with censorious governments," says Dr Anja Kovacs of The Internet Democracy Project. "Governments around the world have become more wary since the uprisings and protests last year and most of them are increasing the pressure on intermediaries to monitor their content."

Social media analyst Sanjukta Basu concurs and adds, "From a philosophical point of view, the uproar against the new policy is legitimate (in broad terms) as it is essentially pro-censorship. But considering the choices Twitter has and the pressure it is facing, I would say it is actually handling it all quite cleverly."

“What Twitter is doing is telling governments, ‘You want a mechanism in place? We have one. But we will also tell the world what exactly you wanted us to do and what you made us take down’.” — Dr. Anja Kovacs

At the 'All Things D' conference in California last week, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo had sought to reason out the new policy and said, "It's a super complex issue. It takes a while for scholars and people who study these matters to weigh in and start to say, 'Wait, this is actually a thoughtful and honest approach and it's in fact being done in a way that's forward-looking'."

His reasoning seems to be finally making sense as Kovacs explains, "What Twitter is doing is telling the governments, 'You want a mechanism in place? We have one. But we will also tell the world what exactly you wanted us to do and what you made us take down'."

The Twitter blog, Tweets still must flow, an assertive follow-up on its famous blog The Tweets must flow that was posted a year ago, categorically points out, "If and when we are required to withhold a tweet in a specific country, we will attempt to let the user know, and we will clearly mark when the content has been withheld."

To provide more transparency to the new policy, Twitter has also partnered with Chilling Effects, the online archive that protects lawful online activity from legal threat. Chilling Effects will now have a section dedicated to Twitter, which will feature all those tweets that have been taken down as well as the story behind what prompted its removal. Also, you can easily access the removed tweet by simply changing your country preference in the settings.

Basu says, "In hindsight, it is actually a better policy than what they previously had – of removing a tweet globally. The idea of Twitter is not just to let people communicate freely but also let the world know what is going on. In a way, the new policy will still serve the revolutionary power of Twitter."

 
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