1 February 2012

Twitter policy that restricts tweets sparks outrage

Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei, who was jailed last year for challenging authority, denounced Twitter's new censorship policy
Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei, who was jailed last year for challenging authority, denounced Twitter's new censorship policy
David Gray/REUTERS
Twitter announced last week that it would begin restricting tweets in specific countries if they violated local laws, setting off claims of censorship by IFEX members Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) and the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR).

Previously, Twitter had to remove a tweet from its entire network if it received a takedown request from a government. But the company said in a blog postpublished on 26 January that it now has the ability to selectively block a tweet from appearing to users in one country.

"Starting today, we give ourselves the ability to reactively withhold content from users in a specific country while keeping it available in the rest of the world," the Twitter blog said.

In the interests of transparency, Twitter said it will post a censorship notice whenever a tweet is removed and will post the removal requests it receives from governments, companies and individuals at the website chillingeffects.org.

RSF sent a letter to Twitter's executive chairman, Jack Dorsey, urging that the censorship policy be scrapped immediately.

"By finally choosing to align itself with the censors, Twitter is depriving cyberdissidents in repressive countries of a crucial tool for information and organisation," the letter said. "Twitter's position that freedom of expression is interpreted differently from country to country is unacceptable."

RSF noted that Twitter was earning praise from free-speech advocates a year ago for enabling Egyptian dissidents to continue tweeting after the Internet was disconnected.

Back then, Twitter intimated that it would take a hands-off approach to censoring content in a blog post entitled "The Tweets Must Flow".

"We do not remove Tweets on the basis of their content," the blog post read. "Our position on freedom of expression carries with it a mandate to protect our users' right to speak freely and preserve their ability to contest having their private information revealed."

"We are very disappointed by this U-turn now," RSF said in the letter.

Activists who have relied on Twitter, many of them for political protests in the Arab world, demanded that the censorship initiative be ditched.

"This is very worrying for activists in this part of the world who have seen Twitter as the only tool to promote human rights and social justice, and to report on cases of torture," said Nabeel Rajab, president of BCHR.

"Censorship of Twitter would be a disaster for them. News media are controlled by the state so Twitter remains one of the few tools available to people," he added.

In China, where activists have embraced Twitter even though it's blocked inside the country, artist and free expression advocate Ai Weiwei tweeted in response to the news: "If Twitter censors, I'll stop tweeting."

Some tweets called for a boycott of Twitter on 28 January - using the hashtag #TwitterBlackout. Many of them came from the Middle East.

EOHR assistant secretary general Sherif Azer also sees the new policy as a restriction to free expression in theory, but "in practice it wouldn't be a big issue for many reasons," he said.

For instance, Twitter will not filter content before it is posted. It will only remove tweets if it receives a request from government officials, companies or other outside parties that label the message illegal - and only if Twitter agrees. Azer thinks the whole process will take time - at which point the tweet will have been online for a while.

Plus, says Azer, blocked content would still be available in other countries, which means it could be accessed through proxies.

Twitter defended the move as "a good thing for freedom of expression, transparency and accountability."

"This launch is about us keeping content up whenever we can and to be extremely transparent with the world when we don't. I would hope people realise our philosophy hasn't changed," Alexander Macgillivray, Twitter's general counsel, told news reporters.

Some defenders of Internet freedom came to Twitter's defence, crediting Twitter with being upfront about the potential for censorship while upholding free speech - and having to comply with local laws. They say that very few of the tech giants give much information about why they take down certain pieces of content.

"Twitter is being pilloried for being honest about something that all Internet platforms have to wrestle with," said Cindy Cohn, legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "As long as this censorship happens in a secret way, we're all losers."

Macgillivray also assured reporters that the new policy has nothing to do with a recent US$300 million investment by Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Mac or any other financial contribution.

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