From NYT: Censoring of Tweets Sets Off #Outrage

Censoring of Tweets Sets Off #Outrage

This New York Times article covers the beginnings of Twitter, from a small tool developed in San Francisco by a developer to update friends, to it’s growth and eventual global prominence as a premier social media tool that is capable of bringing down givernments during the Arab Spring.

Twitter must now face the same problems that come from scaling up to Google-like proportions. Google whose own motto is “Do no evil” may be construed to mean “censor search results in China in order to do business there.” Now Twitter must confront situations its founders may have never considered from it’s humble beginnings 5 years ago in Silicon Valley.

Internet users, especially avid social media die hards are never shy to voice their feelings online. Some choice reactions to news that Twitter may censor Tweets in countries with stricter governmental controls read like, “Thank you for the #censorship, #twitter, with love from the governments of #Syria, #Bahrain, #Iran, #Turkey, #China, #Saudi and friends,” wrote Björn Nilsson, a user in Sweden.” While Bianca Jagger asked, almost existentially, “How are we going to boycott #TWITTER?” using Twitter’s signature hash tag(#).

Interestingly enough an academic took the opposing side. Zeynep Tufekci, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, took the other side. “I’m defending Twitter’s policy because it is the one I hope others adopt: transparent, minimally compliant w/ law, user-empowering,” she wrote.

Transparency and casual intellectual discourse may be a luxury of the west. In Thailand, for instance, a Tweet critical of the monarchy is punishable by a jail term with the offending Tweet blocked within the country. The offending Tweet will still be available to those outside of the country, however.

This raises the deeper philosophical question of how we intend to reign in the internet in the future. Presently, the online world is still in many respects like the wild west. There is very little government interference, little tracking save for that done by the largest online companies like Google and Facebook that profit from such info, and nearly zero censorship, at least in the West. Further, the internet is by and large a free space accessible to nearly all with smaller barriers to entry than ever before. Many public spaces and cities offer free Wifi. Some argue that the internet should be as readily available as drinking water to citizens and others even claim it as a human right.

But what of Twitter? Should Twitter exist with censorship, however small? Or should it not exist at all if even the slightest amount of censorship is part of the deal? Since it doesn’t look like Twitter is going away anytime soon, many users will have to accept some forms of censorship when using the service, depending on which country they are in, or else innovate a competing uncensored service. The internet is wildly entrepreneurial, so if someone doesn’t like the way a site or service is run, Twitter or otherwise, they are welcome to start their own. Or perhaps Twitter was never intended to be a political tool in the first place, it just happened to serve that purpose in a given environment. It’s like using an egg beater to mix cement. In a jam, it works, but was it ever really intended for such a use to begin with?

In the end, it is human nature to communicate information from one to another, or one to many. This is something that will never change, but the tools we utilize to do so, online or elsewhere, will continue to adapt to these changing global political environments.


7 thoughts on “From NYT: Censoring of Tweets Sets Off #Outrage

  1. I think Twitter is doing the right thing by following the governments laws that enforce censorship by getting rid of those censored comments in that country but allowing the comments to be read by other countries that do not have those restrictions. In an ideal world, we would want it to be an open source of information but Twitter is a business and if they don’t comply it could affect their business model. The ways around this, as the article states is to set your location to worldwide or to give the censored terms pseudonyms.

  2. When Twitter was in the early stages back in California five years ago, I do not think it was ever in the scope of its developer’s vision that it would become the political tool that it has been used for today. Twitter is about posting whatever speech, quote, text, activity, photo you want within those 140 characters. In the USA we have the freedom to post-worry free and as the article touches on most of the internet is still free from government interference here in the West. In other countries with stricter regimes, they can censor and Twitter has to deal with that. Yes, it should be able to exist in these areas with the censorship because a far majority of users most likely aren’t posting things that would be censored. Let those people enjoy it for what it is and not be punished for what the minority is doing. The tweets of those gov’t threatening posts may stir the pot for a few minutes if they even get posted but the censorship should remove any overall threat. Censoring a small number of tweets is better than not having twitter at all if you live in one of those countries.

  3. If this policy was in effect a year ago, I wonder how it would have effected the Arab Spring. Would Twitter still have been pivotal in organizing protests? I assume the use of Twitter would have been replaced by the use of other sites, like Facebook and YouTube (even more than they were already used for this purpose).

  4. Twitter is a free-speech tool for its users for a long time. Users can say anything freely on twitter and the effect of communication is worldwide. For some countries, removing content that is illegal seems to be reasonable and I believe some countries, especially with worse records for human rights and freedom of speech, would endorse the policy. However, undermining the usefulness of Twitter might contribute to the popularity of other similar sites like Facebook and finally devalue Twitter itself. It is also very likely that local twitter-like sites will beat over Twitter as a result.

    Moreover, I wonder how could Twitter censor all these tweets among different countries. It is hard to decide whether the message is illegal or ‘maybe offensive’. It is also hard to block some images on which may have some illegal words. Since it plans to redact messages only in those countries where they are illegal by looking at the IP address, the users can simply change their location setting to ‘worldwide’ and see everything. If so, the censorship would not work at all.

  5. I think that Twitter should resist censorship as much as it can, while never resiting to the point that it ceases to be accessible in a given country. Pretty much, it should comply with censorship at a bare minimum. A slightly censored Twitter is better than no Twitter, especially as it continues to grow in importance as a global platform of communication. I feel that Google’s censorship is more harmful than Twitter’s censorship, because Google is a portal to the entire Internet while Twitter is but one of many social networks.

    • I believe Twitter’s decision was right in order to keep its business running. If it didn’t comply with the law in the country, Twitter will not be able to run its business there. So from the view point of business, twitter should not be accused of this policy. However, from the view point of government that imposed this policy to twitter, this censorship won’t work well. Those who urge to expand their thoughts and protests will definitely use another way to do since Twitter is just one of the powerful tools for communication.

  6. I think censorship is necessary in some situations. To do business in another country and benefit its citizens or to keep deeply offensive material off the feeds. In both instances, the censorship is to benefit the public in some way. I don’t agree with Twitter using censorship to reflect their views or their supporters.

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