Where They Burn Tweets, They Will Ultimately Burn People

In January 2011, Twitter wrote a fairly inspiring blog post entitled The Tweets Must Flow.

In the entry, crafted by Twitter co-founder (and then creative director) Biz Stone and general counsel Alex Macgillivray, wrote about the importance of preserving “the open exchange of information”, and that “almost every country in the world agrees that freedom of expression is a human right”.

Now, in a new update to this policy, Twitter appears to have done a one-eighty on its stance towards freedom of expression, as the platform now has the facility to withhold tweets from users in an entire, specified country – while keeping that content available to the rest of the world.

The blog post, called The Tweets Must Still Flow, revises Twitter’s position on freedom of expression, inasmuch as now it could be dictated on a country-by-country basis.

As we continue to grow internationally, we will enter countries that have different ideas about the contours of freedom of expression. Some differ so much from our ideas that we will not be able to exist there. Others are similar but, for historical or cultural reasons, restrict certain types of content, such as France or Germany, which ban pro-Nazi content.

Until now, the only way we could take account of those countries’ limits was to remove content globally. 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. We have also built in a way to communicate transparently to users when content is withheld, and why.

One of our core values as a company is to defend and respect each user’s voice. We try to keep content up wherever and whenever we can, and we will be transparent with users when we can’t. The Tweets must continue to flow.

Twitter uses the example of pro-Nazism as an area where they might restrict content in France or Germany, where such musings are illegal, but this is a far more complex matter than they’re leading us to believe. If – somehow – they manage to react quickly enough to hide such content from the combined Twitter population of France and Germany (approximately 15-20 million total users), said content could still be widely shared throughout the rest of Twitter. Friends of friends will make retweets – internal and organic – and provide comments, and how much can realistically be hidden away?

Okay, so neo-Nazism isn’t going to get a lot of eyeballs – one would hope – but this is a pretty clear cut case. What about countries where speaking against the state is illegal? Or criticising politicians and big business? Or confronting religious leaders? Or religion itself?

What if we’re talking about revolution?

On paper it seems a better solution for Twitter to block tweets from reaching given countries, rather than the countries themselves blocking Twitter entirely, but is there really all that much of a difference? I’m not so sure. We’ll have to see how often Twitter implements this facility – assuming, that is, we in the privileged West even notice – but this doesn’t appear to be something that benefits the world, even those fortunate enough for their content to be left alone.

Twitter can, of course, do what they want – it’s their garden, after all. But ultimately, censorship is censorship. And freedom of expression – assuming that said luxury isn’t being used to oppress another group – isn’t really something you can be all pro about one day, and then qualifying the next. Part of Twitter’s great appeal, and it’s long-term viability as a platform for social change, is its global reach. With Twitter, I can expose the corruption and problems in my country to that of my freer neighbour. Law is law, but I’m not convinced we should be obliging any country that has restrictions against any kind of personal freedom. And if we are, then why not let Twitter, the community – which is increasingly the world – decide, as opposed to Twitter the business? Which essentially comes down to Twitter, the board?

If someone in Germany is waxing lyrical about Hitler on Twitter, surely they’ll simply be risking prosecution by the German authorities? It’s not as if Twitter hiding this content from other Germans has stopped the event from actually happening – the tweeting still took place. If the person persists, what’s the next step – a ban from Twitter? Twitter themselves turning the offender over to the police? Where does it end? And what qualifies Twitter to make these calls?

Most importantly, who watches the watchers?