Twitter’s announcement last week that it could begin censoring tweets on a country-by-country basis drew criticism from many free-speech activists, including Reporters Without Borders, a global nonprofit group that advocates for journalists. Other observers were less concerned, attributing Twitter’s move to the realities of operating in a global environment with differing legal systems and social norms. On Monday, Twitter’s new policy received praise from one source the company might wish had practiced a little self-censorship itself: a Chinese state-run newspaper called the Global Times.
“It is impossible to have boundless freedom, even on the Internet and even in countries that make freedom their main selling point,” read an editorial on the English-language website of the Global Times. “The announcement of Twitter might have shown that it has already realized the fact and made a choice between being an idealistic political tool as many hope and following pragmatic commercial rules as a company.”
Twitter did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the editorial, which was entitled, “Twitter Critics Confuse Politics with Business Decision.” The Global Times is a tabloid published by the Chinese Communist Party, which also publishes the People’s Daily, considered to be the official state organ.
Prior to Twitter’s announcement, the company had the power to delete tweets, of course, but not the ability to do so on a country-by-country basis. What’s new, the company said in a blog post, is “the ability to reactively withhold content from users in a specific country — while keeping it available in the rest of the world.” As part of the new policy, Twitter is setting up a new transparency regime whereby “if and when we are required to withhold a Tweet in a specific country, we will attempt to let the user know, and we will clearly mark when the content has been withheld.” The company said it would keep a tally of such withheld content on the Chilling Effects website.
Twitter’s announcement drew a range of reactions from free-speech advocates. Reporters Without Borders wrote a letter to Twitter executive chairman Jack Dorsey, expressing “deep concern” over the move and urging him to reverse the policy. “By finally choosing to align itself with the censors, Twitter is depriving cyberdissidents in repressive countries of a crucial tool for information and organization,” the group wrote. “Twitter’s position that freedom of expression is interpreted differently from country to country is inacceptable. This fundamental principle is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
But other observers said the potential harm being posed by Twitter’s new policy might be overstated. Zeynep Tufekci, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, made this case recently in a post entitled “Why Twitter’s New Policy Is Helpful for Free-Speech Advocates.” Whereas content previously censored by Twitter would have disappeared globally, the new policy is much narrower, and applies only to individual countries. What’s more, Twitter will clearly announce any such takedowns, drawing attention to cases where it’s been obliged by local law to remove content.
Several observers brought up potential commercial implications of Twitter’s move, particularly with respect to China, which has the world’s largest Internet user base. In its letter, Reporters Without Borders seemed to suggest that Twitter’s new policy may be motivated by a desire to curry favor with Chinese authorities in order to give the service a better chance of cracking into the market there, where it’s been banned since 2009. “While it is obviously regrettable that the Chinese authorities block access to Twitter and Facebook,” the group wrote, “what would Twitter’s added value be if it also had to purge itself of forbidden content in order to establish itself in China?”
But in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Twitter general counsel Alex Macgillivray said the company’s new policy “has nothing to do with China.” And it’s hard to see how the new policy will help it crack China, where a homegrown microblogging service called Sina Weibo already dominates the market, with over 250 million users.
The editorial in the Global Times wasn’t the only source of praise for Twitter’s move. An official with Thailand’s Information and Communication Technology Ministry called Twitter’s new policy a “welcome development” in an interview with the Bangkok Post and said the ministry would work with the company to make sure local tweets are in compliance with the law. In the past, the Thai government has cracked down on internet content found to violate its lèse-majesté law, which prohibits citizens from “defaming” or “insulting” Thailand’s king and royal family.