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 of competitors which remove 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.
LET OTHERS PRAISE THEE, NOT THINE OWN MOUTH
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."
MY FIRST SUPERINJUNCTION
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.
THE GIFT OF CENSORSHIP
"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.