/ Rob Beschizza / 8 pm Tue, Jan 31 2012
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  • Twitter's early-bird special on censorship

    Twitter's early-bird special on censorship

    Twitter's U-turn is understandable, but that doesn't mean we should be happy about its willingness to take down tweets on-demand for foreign governments. Rob Beschizza explains why this is going to suck.

    Photo: Sabeth

    Last week, Twitter announced plans to censor tweets in specific countries, but only to local readers. At the same time, it committed itself to publishing each act of censorship at the Chilling Effects clearinghouse.

    Assailed by critics, Twitter pointed out that the new policy puts it ahead ahead of competitors which removes postings without disclosure. Defenders also pointed out the company's proven record of defending users' rights and standing up to legal pressure.

    Insisting that transparent censorship is better than secret censorship, Twitter also published a tranche of copyright takedowns it had received; a taster of how the system will work.

    All this distracts us, however, from a simple fact: Twitter currently performs no political censorship at all and has never once removed a tweet at the request of a foreign government. The false choice between degrees of political censorship belies Twitter's third option, of continuing its censorship-free tradition instead of playing with political fire abroad.

    The exquisitely-balanced compromises that Twitter devised for itself—such as its promise not to pre-emptively filter tweets—appeal to U.S. business pundits who cannot envisage Twitter declining to do business in unfree countries. But it's left to the imagination why courts in these places, able to threaten local staff and business operations, would respect these corporate policies when they issue their inevitable demands.

    In all this, Twitter is keen to claim that its "philosophy" of removing tweets as required by law hasn't changed. This is to ignore the unavoidable necessity of domestic compliance. What has changed are whose laws it's willing to subject itself to. It's a future Twitter's CEO, Dick Costolo, reveals little about, except to insist that "scholars" will one day praise them for it.

    The idea that Twitter might decline these opportunities is treated as an absurdity. This vague faith, that a clearer business model will emerge from unhindered growth abroad, is fine sand to build a house on.


    Everyone seems to agree on one thing: that Twitter's explanation of its policy was poorly-written and earned it much unfair criticism over the weekend. That said, Twitter also tried to gloss over its policy change, making it easy to believe that it would result in less censorship than is currently the case.

    "Until now," Twitter wrote, "the only way we could take account of those countries’ limits was to remove content globally."

    The way they put it, you'd think it might have happened once or twice. But until now, Twitter has never taken account of other countries' limits and never removed tweets globally because of them.

    Like a "special offer" tag with a conspicuously visible original price that was never actually charged, this encourages the reader to think that someone, somewhere, was already paying in full. It hides the current tally: zero tweets blocked at the request of foreign governments or for material not illegal in the U.S.

    Also, Twitter rather slyly spoke of domestic copyright takedowns in the same breath as it spoke of foreign courts; even if you consider such removals to be as censorious as silencing political activism, it still obscures the critical difference between civil enforcement and state-ordered political censorship.

    Together, these well-muddied waters led many reporters to rephrase Twitter's claim into an explicit reduction of censorship, rather than its inauguration.

    "Previously, when a government demanded that Twitter remove a tweet or block a user, access to that content would be blocked from the entire world," wrote Mashable's Lauren Indvik, about government demands that were in fact ignored.

    "The new system would allow countries and private businesses to submit complaints [over] Germany’s strict laws against pro-Nazi speech or China’s laws against criticizing the government. ... Previously, when Twitter received such a request, its only option was to take down the tweet on a global level, making it inaccessible from any country," wrote the AP, about requests that were never acted upon.

    "Previously, the tweet would disappear for everyone," reported CNN, about tweets that never disappeared previously.

    "Until now, when Twitter has taken down content, it has had to do so globally," wrote the EFF's Eva Galperin, referring to political censorship, not mere DMCA takedowns: "For example, if Twitter had received a court order to take down a tweet that is defamatory to Ataturk--which is illegal under Turkish law--the only way it could comply would be to take it down for everybody ... the overall effect is less censorship rather than more censorship, since they used to take things down for all users."

    Twitter confirmed to me that it has never censored a tweet at the request of a government. Not about Ataturk, not about the King of Thailand, nor anyone else. The blurring of domestic copyright takedowns with political criticism abroad is bad enough. But to describe more censorship as "less censorship" by comparing it to even worse hypothetical censorship is a caricature of free expression.

    No surprise, then, that Thailand (where criticizing royalty is a criminal offense) was the first government to publicly praise Twitter's new policy.


    As Twitter's defenders point out, Twitter's motive in all this is access to new markets. It's a sensible business move, and disreputable competitors such as Facebook long ago trampled their way there.

    But Twitter's always been different--and always ready to tell us that it's different.

    In 2008, Twitter boasted that it came "to the rescue" of a man jailed in Egypt. As recently as last year, it said it had a "mandate" to protect its users' free speech. It has often touted itself as a useful tool for protestors suffering under authoritarian regimes, and publicized its laudable past efforts to help them, such as delaying upgrades that would have blocked Iranian activists during protests there.

    Now, however, the topic's turned to the "contours" of free speech in the places it wishes to do business.

    Twitter's paid its dues; who doubts that it is the most trustworthy major social network? It's earned the benefit of the doubt regarding its intentions. It's unfair that people have accused Twitter of literally betraying activists, when it has done no such thing.

    But the most common refrain I hear from Twitter's defenders is that if you ever expected ethics from a for-profit company, you've earned your disappointment. Such naked cynicism from its own supporters can hardly warm hearts at a company that once called itself "the free speech wing of the free speech party."


    There are also practical problems that western businesses face when moving into new digs abroad. If the experiences of other tech companies is any indication, Twitter could be forced to do more than block a tweet here or there once the safety and freedom of its foreign employees is at stake.

    Twitter anticipates being able to censor only to local readers, and appears to anticipate easy circumvention loopholes. But how can it pick which court orders it will obey? If local courts demand more oppressive local measures and assert global jurisdiction over Twitter's operations, Twitter could have to choose between obedience, local staffers' freedom or jobs, or the indiscriminate blocking that all this is supposed to avoid.

    In India, the government bullied RIM into providing intelligence services with access to BlackBerry networks. In China, Yahoo turned in dissidents to the authorities. There are Google executives who will be jailed if they ever show their faces in Italy.

    More likely, English courts are in the habit of issuing "superinjunctions" to ban censored media from even disclosing the fact that they've been censored—given its pledge to publish, Twitter may have to choose between its commitment to transparency and avoiding contempt of court.

    In his latest interview, Costolo described censorship as a "super-complex issue". When Twitter stops forcing other countries to simply block it, in favour of acting as their willing agents of censorship, he'll find out just how complex it gets.


    "If Twitter censors, I’ll stop tweeting," wrote Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei.

    "I face so much censorship in Sudan as a journalist, you were my free and safe space," wrote Sudanese journalist Reem Shawkat.

    It's understandable why foreign activists hate Twitter's new policy: they're the ones who would be silenced by it in their own countries. But that plain fact blurs under our endless capacity for abstraction, in which their political awareness morphs into a demented reflection of our own.

    Reuters' Paul Smalera, for example, ordered Twitter's critics to "grow up" and described conspicuous censorship as a "gift" to activists and reporters. Because the blocking will be visible, he said, there is "a crucial distinction from outright censorship."

    This view—that unless a censor can eradicate a message worldwide, it isn't really censorship—strikes me as the point where the danger of Twitter's compromise becomes most apparent. It inoculates our concern for the activist who has been silenced (and for the intended audience who cannot hear him) with our own pointless knowledge of his and their suffering.

    Smalera even suggests that a Syrian who learns of being censored by Twitter should be thankful for the "box of shame" it hangs on the Syrian government, as if such a person wouldn't already know that his freedom was limited, and wouldn't already live in fear for his safety.

    "I can easily imagine a world where a censored tweet becomes the ultimate protest symbol," Smalera writes. "One that unfortunately deprives the protesters of content, but sends the message to protesters that their worst fears are right, and they ought not give up their fight."

    We keep talking of activism as content: it's as privileged a viewpoint as you'll ever get from the silicon tower of tech journalism, where the act of disclosure is more virtuous than having nothing to disclose, and where the West's ethical feather-plucking is more real than the reality of politics in dangerous places.

    Silicon Valley seems finally to be learning the lesson that if you sell yourself on virtue, the business will make you eat your words. Twitter's U-turn on censorship teaches it another one: if you take credit for what activists do with your tools, you'll end up eating their words, too.

    / / COMMENTS

    / / /


    1. Yay Rob. Best post you’ve dropped. Thank you for highlighting the hyper-privelaged self righteous perspective that censored tweets are somehow more powerful than regular activist tweets. This is all very upsetting.
      Seriously. We give Twitter the power to make bad decisions that will create long reaching effects. We can take that power away.
      Leave Twitter. It is useless when it is censored.

    2. Nice one. I’m inclined to think of this as The Great Twitter Firewall, with the receiving country being in control of their own Twitter Firewall for the benefit of their residents and citizens. Don’t like the selection of Twitter in your home prefecture? Move!

    3. How did we so quickly move into the Orwellian nightmare that Twitter, Google and Facebook seem to be bringing into reality….

      Twiiter FB and Google EXRACT vast amount in content/value from “Communities” and leverage this content/value into billions of dollars in profit….

      Why are the “Community” owners/creators of the value/content not remunerated financially in return for the value they create ?

      Why is it right for a few hundred or a few thousand to reap huge financial rewards from selling “Community” created content without the explicit permission of the “Community”  and without returning any monetary valeu to the “Community”  ?……

      If a “Community” creates the majority of value that can be repeatedly leveraged to generate wealth …it would seem that at a minium the process of leveraging this value to generate the billions in revenue should be transparent…. interesting that investors/share holders have this ability to demand transparency while  the majority value creators that are the “Community” do not…..By transparency..here I mean that if Twitter or Google or FB have decided that they can sell the content/data of the “Community” that gives it value….They should at minium make visibile to the “Community” who they have sold access to the data/content as well as what amount was paid for the “Community” created content…..Why is this not the case….? 

      Why are the “Communities” that add value/data/content that is leveraged into billions in revenue and IPO floats treated as products instead of the most important added value to these companies….. ?

    4. I love the Twitter PR Spin. Their entire defense breaks down to “lesser of two evils.”Which is basically why we have an oscillating 2 party system in mmMerika. 

      It’s not surprising our corporate overlords pray upon our delusion that there is an illusion of real choice.

    5. I didn’t take this move as being about emerging markets so much as the existing American one.

      It seems obvious that the writing is on the wall as far as freedom of speech goes on the internet – the American government is just going to keep introducing bills that are ostensibly about copyright, but will have excellent utility as tools of censorship (and the government and legal system simply won’t be able to resist the temptation). Once they get passed, Twitter won’t have to lift a finger scrambling to avoid the risk of permanent takedown – they’ll already be compliant.

      Twitter is ensuring its business in a world where governments are catching on to the fact that it, and its peers, are the new media channels. They won’t be left unregulated for that reason.

      1. Then it, and it’s peers, need a new generation of replacements. I believe that new generation is already here, it just needs to find a ‘voice’, or several. Or perhaps it has, but a critical mass has yet to tune into the right frequency.

      2. We have other working free/open source microblog platforms. Identi.ca. The new freesocial.org from Piratpartiet.

        1. I don’t see how either of those would survive a domain nuking (SOPA) or a outright round up of their operators (Megaupload).

          The platform can be open or closed, it doesn’t matter when there’s no possibly of running either without approval. People keep comparing these government measures to firewalls when they should be comparing them to signed application environments.

          1. Stuart Anderson: “I don’t see how either of those would survive a domain nuking (SOPA) or a outright round up of their operators (Megaupload)….”

            hhhmmm… probably something like…




            megaupload had servers in the US. That’s the reason they got caught. If they keep the servers and the domains out of the US…

            1. I can’t wait for the US government to backtrack on their opinions of internet censorship when they realise they’ve removed an enitire industry from their country.

              Jobs seem to be the only thing that matters to American, in the same way that all the UK cares about is tourism.

            2. Don’t you mean http://thepiratebay.se/? They changed it in fear of a DNS takedown.

              Top level DNS is held hostage in America, there’s little that individual actors can do about that.

              There’s also the matter of The Pirate Bay’s founders prison sentences just having been made final. The Pirate Bay is the exception in these matters, not the rule – most people will shutter their doors rather than go to jail.

              This is by no means a solved problem, and it won’t be until there’s a widely applicable model for censorship resistant website hosting/publishing. We aren’t there yet.

    6. Voltaire said “I may disagree profoundly with what you say, but I shall defend to your death your RIGHT to say it.”

      So it’s rather disturbing and strange that a Social Networking site adopts an anti-Social policy of ‘selective’ censorship.

      If Twitter (Inc?) proceeds with blocking freedom of speech in order to do business and make profit in censoring Countries, I anticipate new and more socially acceptable sites to take Twitter’s place for letting us ALL down.

    7. “Twitter currently performs no political censorship at all”

      That’s pure Carolina swine sewage, my friend.
      Twitter regularly pulls US anti-government twitter posts out of all the Twitter post rankings. Did it to the #FuckYouWashington twitter protests. Did it to the #OccupyWallStreet protests Ask @JeffJarvis, the journalist that started the #F***YouWashington protest. I remember very specifically there was really foul, offensive “things guys say about…” category of that was at the top of twitter rankings made impossible for Twitter to claim it pulled because the F-bomb is offensive. That other category that first whole weekend of the #FuckYouWashington protest was far more offensive than a simple f-bomb.

      1. Conjecture.

        There’s plenty of material around the internet (not from Twitter) that explains why OWS didn’t trend.  Trending isn’t as simple as something being popular – and the people in the know seem to think it quite likely that this has nothing to do with censorship.

        Just because you think something’s popular doesn’t mean it will be trending; that’s not how it works.

        Unless of course you have access to evidence that I don’t, I don’t notice any citations in your post.

      2. “trending” is about what is getting the most activity at any given moment in time, not what has had the largest amount of posts in the past.

      3. Also skewed perception based on your followers. Just because every other tweet in your feed has a particular hashtag doesn’t mean everyone else’s feed does.

    8. I’m not sure what you would like them to do.   Surely the fact that ‘large US company agrees to comply with local laws when doing business in other countries’ is only reasonable?  Should they thumb their noses at local laws?

      Blogger is doing something similar – they are redirecting users to a country specific extension so that any changes that need to be made for legal reasons are limited to that country.

      To quote their policy:  “. By utilizing ccTLDs, content removals can be managed on a per country basis, which will limit their impact to the smallest number of readers. Content removed due to a specific country’s law will only be removed from the relevant ccTLD.”

      (Ref: http://support.google.com/blogger/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=2402711 )

      This means that blog content taken down for compliance with US law will only affect ‘(blogname).blogger.com.us’ .. and not the rest of the world.

      It’s good that ‘the ‘.us’ domain is going to be used by blogger to prevent the US law changes from propagating over to users in other countries.

      That’s what they claim … although they haven’t implemented the .us end of it yet.  They certainly have in other countries .. which is totally ruining Alexa rankings.


      1. “I’m not sure what you would like them to do.   Surely the fact that
        ‘large US company agrees to comply with local laws when doing business
        in other countries’ is only reasonable?  Should they thumb their noses
        at local laws?”


        I can’t even believe that UK newspapers agree to this whole super injunction bollocks; let alone Twitter, a US based social network – why should they care about our laws?

      2. I’m not sure what you would like them to do.   Surely the fact that ‘large US company agrees to comply with local laws when doing business in other countries’ is only reasonable?

        What we’d like them to do is not open offices in countries where there is even the possibility of them being required to censor messages.

        Why does it have to open offices in Syria, Egypt, Iran, or anywhere else where they might face censorship? They are agreeing to allow whole countries worth of dissidents to be silenced because they hope for a little more advertising revenue in those countries.

        1. Unfortunately, they’d have to close their offices in the US…

          There are very few countries on the planet with a good enough track record to be reasonably expected to pass your test. And Switzerland ain’t cheap my friend.

          The ultimate question here is what Twitter actually is.

          Twitter is a for-profit business that happened to be useful for a time as an activist platform.

          If you want to change twitter’s mind, you’ll be able do it by affecting their bottom line or changing the laws under which they operate.

          Twitter is *not* a non-profit with a binding mission statement.

          *Billion dollar businesses are not entities capable of having values.*

          People need a serious readjustment of their expectations.

          The division of responsibility multiplied by the distance between the decision makers and outcomes means that businesses this size will never, ever act like a person, regardless of how well-intentioned any individual in the organization is.

          Don’t anthropomorphize large businesses. They aren’t people. They don’t choose their values, because they are incapable of possessing them.

          We need to understand them according to financial incentives and enforceable legal restrictions. That’s it.

          P.S. I want to second all the props to Rob, all in all a great article. Media criticism is so crucial, the article lands right on target.

    9. But couldn’t that also mean that they might be doing the opposite of what you think ( or what they say they are?)  Example.  Say they get a request to take down something from the china government. So they block the Chinese Government from seeing it, yet everyone else still can? Including the local users, that way they can’t complain over what they can’t see. LOL

      Odd way of seeing it or interpreting it, but seriously if Twitter is serious about freedom of speech, (I think they might be).  Wouldn’t that solve alot of issues with Take down orders and stuff including SopA?  What they can’t see, they can’t complain about.

    10. You wrote:

      > It hides the current tally: zero tweets blocked at the request of foreign governments or for material not illegal in the U.S.

      So if the U.S. governments requests something to be blocked, or deems it illegal, it is ok; it’s just foreign governments you have an issue with?

      1. It shouldn’t be doing anything at the mere request of any government.

        But tulings from U.S. courts, sure.  The U.S. is where Twitter is and always was, so there was never any question about U.S. law’s applicability. 

        Twitter’s got an excellent record of fighting foolish or over-reaching courts in the U.S., — a tradition we can at least hope it takes with it to other countries.

    11. Twitter has never blocked a tweet at the request of a foreign government, but have they ever been asked to?

    12. Hey Rob — Jack Dorsey is no longer the CEO of Twitter. Dick Costolo is, which the CNN article you linked to correctly states. Dorsey is currently Executive Chairman.

      As for the subject itself, Twitter is not liable for violations of local laws unless they do business in those countries. There is the quasi-precedent set by the Yahoo case where the US Federal judges ruled that a foreign government could bring a case against Yahoo in a US court, but the case was dismissed. One flimsy precedent seems a lot to base such a far-reaching policy on.

      1. That’s the thing, Twitter wants to set up shop in other countries. That’s where the policy change comes from. If they only stayed in the US they could keep on not censoring everything.

        1.  Well, it’s the two things I mentioned. First, yes actually I believe they already have offices in five other European countries. Second, there is a minor case precedent in the US (due to the Yahoo case) that foreign governments could potentially sue a US-based company within the US judicial system for “violations” based on their foreign laws. So, Twitter set up this policy to defend themselves from either legal attack.

          I’m in no way agreeing with their solution here, I’m just trying to make it clear why exactly they are doing it — it’s not just the foreign offices.

    13. “If Twitter censors, I’ll stop tweeting,” wrote Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei.
      I stopped tweeting when the post was announced. It’s time for another blackout. All tweets must stop. Treat Twitter like the business it is, stop using its services and they will cave. Twatter can’t afford to move into new markets if it loses the old ones.

      1.  I’m not sure if it’s just a coincidence, but the volume of tweets that the people I follow have been putting out has dropped significantly since this announcement. Perhaps it’s just left a bad taste in some people’s mouth and they don’t have the urge to tweet as often.

        I will note though that Rob is still tweeting at the same frequency as he has been :)

        You know, we value the service, and wish to continue using it. We can show that we care by continuing to use the service, but at the same time making it clear that censorship is unacceptable – which is what commentary like Rob’s here is valuable for.

        There’s still time for them to backpeddle on this. As Rob suggests – all they have to do is not go down the road of being put in the position of having to censor anything. All it will take is to not set up marketing offices in countries with strong censorship atmospheres, and we all know which countries those are so it’s not like they’d be guessing.

        Twitter is already blocked in China, which is probably the worst offender (China has two popular microblog services – the concept itself is huge, but it comes with the price of the government having direct access). This is the biggest question, to me – is it worse to have Twitter blocked entirely, or to have it be available but closely monitored for dissent?

        Ideologically, anyway, it is better for it to be blocked entirely. As far as their bottom line goes, they have to decide if the ad revenue from these markets is worth the tarnished reputation they will have if they start to cave to censorship.

    14. Can someone explain what Twitter actually gains by establishing offices in foreign countries which necessitates this new censorship policy?  None of it really seems worth the trouble.

      1. There are a whole lot of talented developers for whom relocating to the US is not practical (or legally possible in some cases)…

    15. How can we get EFF to change its position?

      EFF’s position is what has allowed many intelligent people, like your own Xeni Jardin, to support Twitter’s change in policy [1][2].

      You who are all close to EFF (Cory?) need to press harder to get them to see that this is a terrible policy.

      Everyone is acting as if this is a done deal, but just because a company has made an announcement doesn’t mean that enough internet outrage can’t reverse it — remember Qwikster?

      1. > remember Qwikster

        no, but i remember Plurk. and once i don’t need Twitter anymore, it doesn’t matter what policy they choose to adopt next. i’m out of their loop.

    16. It strikes me as odd that there is such widespread concern about the way that Twitter responds to government requests for censorship when Twitter’s enforcement of their own acceptable use policies occurs with all the care of the government in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.

      My account was disabled by Twitter a couple of months ago. I had been a user for many years, several hundred posts, several hundred followers, most of them mutual. I can’t see how a properly written spam bot would have flagged me – frankly I have no idea what I did “wrong.” As far as I can tell, neither does Twitter.

      When this happened, ALL of my tweets were censored and I was unable to use the service for two weeks. After two weeks, I was reactivated. Twitter’s support people did not offer an explanation as to why my account was disabled. When asking for an explanation I was repeatedly sent a form email response referring to a long list of different Twitter rules from which I suppose I am to choose which one I might have violated.

      I was lucky. While my account was down I searched for others with similar circumstances and found many. Some had been disabled for over a month. Others were never restored.

      The best anyone has been able to offer is “Oh its a free service, you can’t expect them to care.”

      But obviously a lot of people do.

      How can Twitter be a platform from which you can speak truth to government power without fear of censorship when THEY arbitrary disable accounts for weeks at a time and when it happens, they can’t even be bothered to explain why they do it?

      Perhaps Twitter had a political motivation for shutting my account down. Without any explanation, there is no way to know.

    17. This really is the perfect middle ground between censoring for all and censoring for none (which in reality prohibits use of Twitter in oppressive countries).

      Look at it this way: Twitter is currently blocked in places like China. So practically speaking, it’s already completely censored. Twitter agrees play ball, so China lets them operate. Everyone in China starts using Twitter.  Some tweets get censored, twitter follows China’s rules… but only for Chinese visitors.

      The rest of the world finally gets the whole picture and there is a report of the censorship actions on Chilling Effects, so we know exactly what tweets to pay special attention to. Keep in mind the Internet is quick to remember, long to forget, and it always finds a way. If nothing else, technologies like TOR will allow people in China to read censored tweets.

      Of course, it is possible to get around the Chinese block and use Twitter right now, but not for the layperson. Aside from obvious business growth, Twitter could possibly be creating a mechanism by which “censored” tweets will get spotlighted.

      1. China will never let twitter in if chinese tweets are being being broadcast to other countries uncensored. The worst offenders will all have this policy. It represents no middle ground at all. Hate to be contrarian, but I think you’ve made a false assumption.

    18. Rob, I just wanted to chime in and say that this is one of the better pieces I have seen on BoingBoing.  Thanks for putting it together

    19. Distribute, distribute, distribute. 

      Centralized social networks beg for abuse, especially the kind we like to commit electronically these days.

    20. A corporate desire to maximize profits doesn’t exempt you from respecting basic human rights. Transparent censorship is still censorship.

    21. I’m not the biggest fan of Twitter at all, but why is everyone so quick to assume that this is to enable them to operate in countries like Iran and China? It would seem to me that there is a far greater need for Twitter as a company to be able to avoid increasingly censorious regimes in countries they are already operating in, most notably the US and the UK, and I think their pooling their DMCA notices on Chilling Effects is meant to demonstrate this.

      Under these rules, Twitter can turn around and say that they are complying with the letter of the law of DMCA takedown notices/Super-injunctions/etc etc (ad nauseum) in the regions affected by each law while those interested in seeing the material can still use a proxy to access it on the international versions of Twitter that are outside of the jurisdiction of each relevant law.

      Arguably, the DMCA takedown notices are evidence that Twitter is being forced to censor its content already; all this decision does is make sure that Twitter are covering themselves legally, and are able to keep material online (0n its international servers, which can be accessed by proxy) that would otherwise have to be deleted. Why is this a problem?

    22. I think one has to read Rob’s piece as a cri de coeur from someone who wants to believe in what Evgeny Morozov termed iPod liberalism, the notion that western consumer electronics and web services a) can and b) should be used to promote democracy, human rights, free speech (American interpretation of it) and whatnot abroad. People who subscribe to such notions are about to see their hopes dashed, because the state is here and it’s not going to wither away any time soon, it’s going to try to apply its laws both offline and online.

      First of all I find it rather naive to suggest that web services companies should not be allowed to set up shop abroad because those countries might censor speech. Anyone who followed the Wikileaks saga knows that the internet is already being censored by one government, so I don’t see what’d be so unetical about allowing other sovereign states the same privilege. Sure, the US has never censored political speech on Twitter – it has so far never had the need to do so to protect it’s geopolitical interests. No major American television network has devoted serious attention to Wikileaks, since they know they’d be branded as traitors or at least unpatriotic, irresponsible and lose access to politicians. That’s nothing new, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky wrote the book on it, called “Manufacturing Consent”. Additionaly, Paypal and credit card companies were pressured into refusing any payment to Wikileaks. Whereas censorship laws and injuctions should be viewed with suspicion in a democracy, “applying pressure” is not proscribed by law, not subject to a hearing in a court of law, cannot be challenged in parliament, hence is invariably the mark of thug rule. So, let’s not fool ourselves. Twitter, Facebook et al. are American ideological state apparatuses all the time, to borrow Althusser’s notion, and foreign policy tools some of the time. They will be forced into self-censorship if anything on it threatens American hegemony in the world or the status quo at home. It would have been interesting to see how devoted to freedom of speech Twitter and Facebook would have been had they been around in 2000 and had they been used to stage mass demonstrations against the theft of the 2000 presidential election.

      Second, one has to seperate the abstract question of obeying local limits on freedom of speech from the worst aspect of it, i.e. facilitating broad censorship of political speech in authoritarian countries. France and Germany, for example, have laws criminalising “negationism”, which in practice usually means denying the Holocaust. For readers coming from an Anglo-American cultural background this may be rather hard to accept as legitimate, but in continental Europe it is nearly universally accepted that the guarantees of rights and freedoms set forth in the European Convention on Human Rights do not apply to those uses of said freedoms that seek to promote any political philosophy incompatible with a free society. Hence, free speech is not absolute. It’s a more vigilant form of democracy, for sure, but judging from the fact that elections in continental Europe’s established democracies are never determined by their supreme courts and that a real left-wing opposition is present, I would suggest that Americans are not in a position to question whether continental Europe meassures up to anyone’s standards of democracy. The notion of “censorship” that is often bandied about by internet free speech absolutists, the idea that every limit on free speech is Big Brother’s jackboot kicking dissenters in the face may have a lot of appeal in a thoroughly depoliticised society where everything government does is treated with suspicion and cynicism, but it conflates legitimate censorship with authoritarianism. Hence, Twitter’s decision to enter a pariticular foreign market should not be judged based on the fact that they have to obey foreign law per se, but rather on the kind of censorship it will be forced to impose. Censoring tweets linking to a video clip ridiculing a mentally retarded child, analogous to what Google has had to do, is certainly legitimate and the people behind Twitter should face criminal prosecution if they do facilitate such heinous crimes. It’s infinitely more legitimate than keeping the CCP in charge.

      1. “I think one has to read Rob’s piece as a cri de coeur from someone who wants to believe in what Evgeny Morozov termed iPod liberalism, the notion that western consumer electronics and web services a) can and b) should be used to promote democracy, human rights, free speech (American interpretation of it) and whatnot abroad”

        No. It is the exact opposite of that. Western companies should stop promoting themselves as being of use to protestors and dissidents. Such users should not expect  western consumer products and platforms to be reliable, useful tools for political activity. They should be wary of support that presents itself as sincere but is really about marketing ‘iPod Liberalism’ to domestic U.S. audiences who like to hear it. Anyone who “easily imagines a world where a censored tweet becomes the ultimate protest symbol” are ridiculous.

        That was an awfully long comment on a post you didn’t read.

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