The well-publicized January 18th blackout was so effective for SOPA and PIPA opposition that legions of Twitter users refused to Tweet last Saturday, January 28th, organizing their go dark movement via #TwitterBlackout. The protest was over a change in Twitter’s censorship policy, and, perhaps still rabid over the (very real) threat to open internet, Twitter users flew their freedom of speech flags defiantly. Given a few days to meditate on the issues at hand, though, it seems clear that the righteous indignation of these protesters may have been a little hasty.
Twitter will indeed be censoring tweets - on a country by country basis according to the laws of the country being tweeted in. So, if a country’s government outlaws certain content, offending tweets will be taken down - but only in that country. Olivier Basille, from Reporters Without Borders, drafted a letter urging Twitter to reconsider a policy that from his point of view, kowtows to localized censorship and could therefore potentially contravene international free speech standards. Basille posits that the change will stifle online dissidents who have previously used Twitter to great effect to stay informed and organize protests, such as last year’s social media fuelled revolution in Egypt.
But there are plenty of arguments to suggest that this won’t be the case. For starters, the new policy differs from their previous one in only one respect: until now, these tweets would have had to be blocked worldwide. This means that instead of completely censoring any content deemed illegal by any government, all content will be available everywhere, with limitations only in effect for the country with the legality issue. And for those worried that localized censorship will hinder activism, John Castone over at Mashable makes a good point when he says that activists are smart enough to tweet in code if need be. Twitter explicitly says they can’t block a user unless there is “valid and applicable legal order”.
Furthermore, Twitter will be posting all its take downs on watchdog site ChillingEffects.org. It’s also worth noting that all sites have to censor content to stay within the bounds of the law (in order to avoid being shut down) -- including eBay, Google, and Facebook. Most of them just don’t tweet about it.
On balance, it appears there will actually be less censorship than before - and more transparency when censorship does occur. As effective an activism tool as it has proven to be, even Twitter can’t operate outside of the bounds of the law. By complying with government regulations, despite any questions as to the morality of these laws, the platform can remain in countries where activism might be needed most.