World to Twitter: New policy is twaddle

New Twitter rules worry activists from Abu Dhabi to Moscow

Michael Fitzgerald By Michael Fitzgerald

Twitter CEO Dick Costolo speaks at a conference in February 2011. (Reuters/Albert Gea)

On the Internet, having Thailand as a fan can be a badge of dishonor. The Thai government routinely censors Web posts critical of the Thai monarchy, drawing the ire of free speech advocates. So when the Thai government “welcomed” a new Twitter policy, in which governments can ask Twitter to block individual tweets in their countries, it was not seen as a good sign for the messaging service. Thailand recently prosecuted a man for sending text messages critical of the queen.

Thailand’s Bangkok Post speculated that Twitter made the move so China would remove its ban on the service. China’s government has not made a statement, but the editor of Global Times, a government-backed publication, signed up for Twitter and the publication ran an editorial praising Twitter, which concluded:

It is impossible to have boundless freedom, even on the Internet and even in countries that make freedom their main selling point.

The announcement of Twitter might have shown that it has already realized the fact and made a choice between being an idealistic political tool as many hope and following pragmatic commercial rules as a company.

Having Thailand and, apparently, China in its corner is just one reason why Twitter is trending down with a lot of its users, some of whom boycotted the service on Saturday.

 

Twitter’s CEO, Dick Costolo, said at a conference Monday night that Twitter did not foresee operating in China, even after its policy changes. He denied, in fact, that the policy was stricter than what was in place:

 Now, when we are issued a valid legal order in a country in which we operate, such as a DMCA takedown notice, we are able to leave the content up for as many people around the world as possible, while still operating within the local law.

But Costolo was quickly accused by the influential technology site GigaOm of ducking his responsibility as a media provider.

Boycotts and backing around the world

In Arab-speaking countries, discourse was pervaded by a sense of betrayal. Twitter was seen as a valuable tool in coordinating protests during the Arab Spring. In Abu Dhabi’s The National, a column called Twitter “no friend of the Arab Spring,” and predicted “grim scenarios” in Syria and other Arab states.

The past year has seen momentous events of popular empowerment, with Twitter and Facebook rightly celebrated as tools promoting freedom. In Syria and elsewhere today, we see that process is yet unfinished. It is a shame that Twitter seems to value so lightly its role in the face of that kind of repression.

Some drew a connection between Twitter’s move and Saudi prince Al-Waleed bin Talal’s December investment of $300 million in Twitter. But the Arabic world is Twitter’s fastest-growing market, the prince’s investment represents less than five percent of Twitter’s value, and he does not have a seat on the company’s board. Still, #TwitterCensored was a trending tag in the Arabic world. One Arab activist told al-Jazeera English that “the #TwitterCensored stream from Saudi is the closest thing I’ve seen to a Saudi free speech demonstration.”

 

In India, the government is in court with Facebook and Google over their refusal to block content seen as “obscene, objectionable or defamatory.”

India Today ran an angry editorial suggesting that Twitter’s new censorship rules will make it easier for the Indian government to ban speech it finds objectionable.

In Russia, fears were raised that the government might block tweets by election activists, making it harder to ensure fair elections in the country.

Not all Russians were fearful. “I don’t think it will influence anything,” Ilya Varlamov, co-founder of Russia’s  League of Voters, told The Moscow Times. “Twitter is too fast. By the time the government would get around to blocking content, it would already be too old to matter.”

The Russian Internet investment firm Digital Sky took an $800 million stake in Twitter, but does not have a board seat. It also has stakes in Facebook and Zynga.

Cooler heads

Some tech watchers counseled calm. Zeynep Tufekci, a sociologist at the Univerity of North Carolina-Chapel hill, said on her blog technosociology that Twitter had created “a model policy” that would work well for free speech activists.

Twitter’s latest policy is purposefully designed to allow Twitter to exist as a platform as broadly as possible while making it as hard as possible for governments to censor content, either tweet by tweet or more, all the while giving free-speech advocates a lot of tools to fight censorship.

But in Thailand, the Bangkok Post editorialized that

The same Thai government that actually blocked the entire YouTube service until it censored several videos, is almost certain to be in that line at Twitter’s doorstep. If not now, it will happen soon. Will the government reveal any “requests” for Twitter to censor Thai users? Will the service?

What’s your take? Post a comment below, and tweet us @latitudenews.