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Jillian C. York
Jillian C. York
Jillian York is director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco.
E-mailRSSTwitter BooksElectronic Frontier Foundation
Twitter's growing pains
Moves to allow country specific censorship created controversy as netizens voiced concerns - on Twitter.
Last Modified: 31 Jan 2012 13:34
Twitter invoked the ire of some users by announcing their new capacity to censor content by country [EPA]

San Francisco, CA - Last week, Twitter announced changes to the way it handles content takedowns, and it was as if the internet had gone mad. Suddenly, netizens were calling for a Twitter boycott - to take place January 28 - and proclaiming the death of the platform... on Twitter, of course.

While a Twitter boycott is unlikely to have any real effect - after all, Twitter is still working on a sustainable business model - and yelling about the death of Twitter on Twitter is just, well, humorous, users had a point: What the company had announced was that they'd built in the capability to censor content per country. And to do so only in response to official requests, though you wouldn't know that was the case from the hysterics. 

On Forbes, Mark Gibbs announced that Twitter had "committed social suicide" before launching into a (now redacted) explanation of how the company was going to institute keyword filtering. Breathless reporters rang up organisations such as mine, asking how this would affect protesters in Egypt. And on Twitter, the shouting continued.

The truth is, Twitter has indeed instituted a method whereby they can - upon receipt of a "valid and applicable legal request" - take down tweets. The company also states that they will only respond "reactively"; in other words, to content that has already been posted. There is a safety feature built in: Users can change their location if they think the one Twitter has listed based on their IP address is wrong. ReadWriteWeb has suggested the feature might constitute an intentional workaround on Twitter's part.

As I wrote on my own blog, this is censorship, but Twitter isn't above the law. When the company enters a new jurisdiction, setting up offices and putting employees on the payroll, it is bound by the laws of that jurisdiction. And while Twitter is unlikely to set up shop in China anytime soon, when it comes to free speech, few nations match the legal framework of the United States Constitution's First Amendment (however under threat at the moment it might be). So if Twitter opens an office in Germany - as reports have suggested it might - it is beholden to German law.

It seems unlikely, however, that Twitter would respond to most requests from outside those jurisdictions where it is required. Unlikely, but not impossible; that's precisely why Twitter has submitted all withheld content to Chilling Effects, a searchable database of Cease and Desist notices sent to internet companies.

Twitter's page on Chilling Effects already has 4,411 notices, all copyright takedowns under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). In the current climate, it is certainly likely that many of Twitter's future requests will be related to copyright as well.

In fact, Chilling Effects doesn't show any international requests with which Twitter has complied. While that certainly doesn't mean that Twitter hasn't received any, it does mean that Twitter isn't complying with them... assuming Twitter itself is truly being transparent, that is.

Therefore, there's little to suggest that the new system is being put in place for any reason other than the prediction that one day, Twitter will be ordered to take something down. And when that happens, they will do so transparently.

Transparency is key

Indeed, transparency is the most important element of Twitter's new policy. The company has earned the trust of users by being open and upfront about their policies. So has Google, which famously explained, almost apologetically, its decision to enter China in 2006 on the company blog. 

There are also plenty of companies that have done next to nothing to gain consumers' trust, from Netsweeper - the company that sells its censorship wares to both Middle Eastern countries and US libraries alike, and categorises several legitimate religious practices as "occult" - to Cisco, complicit in building China's Great Firewall.

That trust is not instinctual, but based on a company's track record, human rights and corporate social responsibility practices, and (most importantly, when dealing with censorship) transparency. Cisco is as opaque about its practices as Google and Twitter are transparent.

Rebecca MacKinnon, in her new book Consent of the Networked, writes of the "sovereigns of cyberspace", the CEOs and corporate leaders running the companies that have become integral to our daily lives. The lesson? We, the users, need to start thinking about how the internet is governed and controlled.

Ultimately, any company is capable of mistakes. But as Twitter moves forward, we must remain vigilant and hold the company accountable to its promises, to ensure it doesn't head down the slippery slope of censorship. Or as Zeynep Tufekci so aptly tweeted: "We need to keep an eye on @twitter so they keep their policy of transparency, & fights [sic] governments [that] try to restrict speech."

Jillian C York is director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco. She also writes for and is on the Board of Directors of Global Voices Online.

Follow her on Twitter: @jilliancyork

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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