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Making sense of Twitter's censorship

30-Jan-2012 [999]

Ali M Latifi Last Modified: 28 Jan 2012 22:25

Twitter's country-specific censorship announcement has polarised opinion among users of the service [GALLO/GETTY]

In an announcement on its official blog, the micro-blogging service Twitter has said it will enable country-specific censorship of content on the site.

True to the form of the medium, the service was immediately abuzz with questions, criticisms and conspiracies about Thursday's announcement. In a bid to show the service can still be used for dissent, some users have called for a boycott on Saturday, organised around the hashtag #TwitterBlackout.

In a Forbes article highly circulated on the micro-blogging site early Friday, Mark Gibbs wrote that San Francisco, California-based Twitter was committing "social suicide" with the censorship announcement.

Gibbs' article raised fears of an algorithm incapable of understanding the sarcasm that permeate the 140-character blasts comprising the service’s contents.

That "computer-driven" filtering for the up to 9,000 tweets per second the service produced last year could not possibly take context and tone into consideration.

Whereas Gibbs said the announcement equated to Twitter having "dug their own grave", Alex Howard, a DC-based correspondent for Radar, a blog about emerging technologies, said "the fact that Twitter says they will transparently show the rest of the world what’s being censored is actually quite interesting, even innovative".

A departure

Howard, who has little doubt the service will implement the country-specific censorship, said: "I don’t think this system was introduced to be symbolic."

He says the proposal laid out in the blog post entitled "Tweets still must flow" could be a departure even from a similar practice by the search company, Google.

"Google makes raw data available of government requests for information but not the information itself," Howard said.

Twitter will probably follow this model while also in the process "highlighting the contents of tweets that governments are seeking to block and even regions it’s happening in", he said.

Similary, Jillian York, director of international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, does not doubt the proposal amounts to censorship, but says it is the "best middle road" for a company looking to expand globally.

Natasha Tynes, journalist and media development professional, put it much more simply in a tweet to Al Jazeera: "They have no choice if they want to open global offices."

The location of these global offices became a great topic of conversation among many in Twitter's 100 million active user-base.

Suddenly questions of Saudi Prince Walid bin Talal's $300m December investment in the six-year old company started to re-emerge, along with mention of Twitter founder Jack Dorsey's trip to Shanghai earlier this month.

York said the global offices are planned for Europe, most recently Germany, the country mentioned by name in the blog post.

Referring to Twitter’s statement that some countries’ ideas of freedom "differ so much from our ideas that we will not be able to exist there", York doubts that the practice will target nations like Bahrain, Egypt and China.

"Those places are probably not democratic enough" for Twitter to open offices in, she said.

Arab complaints

With Arabic-language content being the fastest-growing segment on Twitter, users in the Arab world began to react to the news early on Friday morning. "The loudest Arabic complaints were from Saudi Arabia," said Iyad el-Baghdadi, an author and Arab spring blogger based in Dubai. Baghdadi sees the vocal reaction among Arab users as an extension of the Arab spring, which some have said the service played a large role in. "The #TwitterCensored stream from Saudi is the closest thing I've seen to a Saudi free speech demonstration. People are pissed and are expressing themselves," said Baghdadi, who as a self-identified Arab Spring activist sees the uproar as a significant development.

"These issues of censorship, government action and free speech, are the same issues we are dealing with every day in the Arab spring. "The fact that these governments and corporations are trying to influence Twitter only means what is said online is hurting them."

Screen shot of a withheld tweet [Twitter]

"This is a reactive policy only. Twitter does not mediate content, and we do not proactively monitor Tweets ... Each request will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis."


Referring to government influence on Twitter, Mustafa Kazemi, a Kabul-based journalist, said Twitter is not only a tool for his reporting from conflict-zones in Afghanistan, but also part of what he calls an ongoing psychological war in the Central Asian nation.

"There is a huge amount of anti-US content being posted by the Taliban and their supporters. There are also criticisms of the Afghan government posted through Afghan media outlets” Kazemi said.

He may not always agree with what is being said by either side, but Kazemi is worried that such content could fall under the purview of Twitter’s censorship plans in a nation where so much news is spread through the micro-blogging service.

Kazemi sees a December call by Senator Joe Lieberman, chair of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, for Twitter to block accounts affiliated with the Taliban for inciting violence as a possible example of future government intervention in the information transmitted on the micro-blogging site.

Though Gibbs saw the initial announcement as going "over to the dark side", others see it as a brilliant implementation of the medium’s inherent ability to create ongoing conversation among its most active users.

"To not announce it would be foolish", said Peter Corbett, CEO of iStrategyLabs, a social media-centric marketing firm in Washington, DC. Corbett has no doubt that the push for the now controversial censorship scheme is for commercial reasons.

"We like to think of Twitter as this great democratic medium for journalists but it’s a profit-driven company first," Corbett said, pointing to the fears the company itself may have had about being kicked out of countries with tremendous growth.

Countries like India, Russia, and Indonesia, are seeing growing numbers of active mobile device users, Howard said.

The big question

Cynthia Wong, Director of the Global Internet Freedom Project at the Center for Democracy & Technology, says the question Twitter must ask itself is, is it better to remain available in a country, even if some content is blocked?

Wong says Twitter is in fact being thoughtful in its answer to that question.

"They are limiting the impact of the block to only the local jurisdiction, trying to be transparent about which tweets are withheld, and at what government's request," Wong said.

In an interview with Al Jazeera, Corbett said Twitter was probably aware of the blacklash the announcement would receive, but in releasing the statement and stressing transparency they may have mitigated the backlash. "Is it good for democracy and open institutions, no. For business, maybe," said Corbett of what he believes was ultimately a business-minded decision. Like Baghadi, who called the statement "half-hearted", Corbett believes it was released in anticipation of a negative public reaction. Corbett imagines the conversation between Twitter and governments pushing for greater censorship as going something like this: "We tried, our users revolted."

"It was 100 per cent premeditated and incredibly smart of them," Corbett said of the 608-word blog post on the country-specific censorship that led millions the world over to respond with 140 characters at a time.