On Thursday, Twitter announced its new censorship policy. It tightens up their previous system, which meant tweets which contravened certain countries' laws would be blocked globally. Now Twitter can block tweets on the same grounds, but only in the countries whose laws the content might break.
A little contextSites like Twitter and Facebook have become closely tied to the Arab Spring narrative of 2011, with people being able to communicate unhampered by censorship.
Nearly 9 in 10 Egyptians and Tunisians surveyed in March said they were using Facebook to organise protests or spread awareness about them.
Both sites were seen as immensely powerful, and helped improve Twitter's reputation as a website with a serious purpose.
The tweets must flowIn January 2011, Twitter's co-founder Biz Stone co-wrote a piece in which the company's position was supposedly made clear.
We don't always agree with the things people choose to tweet, but we keep the information flowing irrespective of any view we may have about the content.Now, many Twitter users are apparently angry at what appears to be an about-face turn by the company. (I say "apparently" because I've learned not to state as fact things I've not seen with my own eyes).
PositivesHiding tweets in some countries and not in others is, in the age of proxy servers, is a little like putting up the kind of blocks we saw in the SOPA protests earlier this month. They're really quite easy to get around, if you know how to do it.
It also doesn't stop tweets being copied and pasted or screen grabs taken of them (by those in countries where the blocks don't apply). Under Twitter's pre-existing policy, this wouldn't be the case; any message that might offend a particular state would, say Twitter, have been blocked worldwide. It's a long shot, though.
Twitter are also stating that they'll be transparent, and will be logging every request on a website called Chilling Effects.
NegativesGuardian tech journalists Julian Borger and Charles Arthur write
In theory the system could have been used last year in the UK to block tweets exposing details hidden by superinjunctions about celebrities, or in 2010 when Trafigura used a superinjunction to block the Guardian and BBC from revealing details about a report on activities in Africa.There, Borger and Arthur have pointed out a sinister side-effect of Twitter's new policy. However well-intentioned their policy might be, if Twitter want to open a UK office (as was reported by the Telegraph in 2011), we as UK readers would have to rely on friends overseas to break superinjunction news on other sites, which isn't a problem when one considers what footballers get up to, but is of importance when we remember Trafigura.
Why is this a concern?Twitter is trying to grow its market reach across the world. It's finally got hold of a business model it thinks might work, and it needs salespeople on the ground in various worldwide locations to make that happen. And if Twitter wants to play in these different territories, it needs to abide by their laws. Twitter give the sensible example of countries like France and Germany who block pro-Nazi content, but not all regimes have the same approach to censorship.
As a Twitter userIt's a shame that corporations feel they have to abide by the laws of countries with backward regimes. I've never understood why some countries get such support when their track records on human rights and freedom of information are so dismal. Bowing to a corrupt or misguided government's whims does nothing to help its people.
However amazing things can happen online, and who's to say that people lucky enough to read certain tweets before they are blocked, can't "quote" them in an old-fashioned retweet? That would spread the message, and if enough people continued to use the old-style RT method, there's a possibility the tweets could still flow, if not freely, then at least with a little more ease than Twitter's lawyers might enjoy.
But maybe both paragraphs just demonstrate how naive I am :)