Twitter’s selective censorship of tweets may be the best option, but it’s still censorship

Twitter’s ability to block certain tweets or users from being seen in specific countries, a somewhat Orwellian feature it calls the “country-withheld content” tool, seems to be getting more popular, according to the Chilling Effects clearinghouse, which tracks such things: tweets and/or users are now being blocked in Pakistan as well as Turkey, and a pro-Ukrainian account is apparently unavailable to users who try to view it from inside Russia, at the request of the government.

In much the same way that Google now shows different maps to users depending on whether they live in Russia or Ukraine, Twitter is shaping the view that its users have of the world around them. Is this a clever way of getting around censorship, or does it ultimately just disguise the problem?

Twitter first introduced the selective censorship tool in 2012, after repeated requests from a number of countries to remove tweets that were judged to be illegal, such as pro-Nazi comments in Germany. When it was launched, the company said that Twitter would do its best to avoid using it as much as possible and to remain the “free-speech wing of the free-speech party,” to use a phrase popularized by Twitter’s former general counsel Alex Macgillivray.

Twitter content withheld

The best of all the unpleasant options?

Zeynep Tufekci, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and an expert in the effects of social-media use during events like the Arab Spring revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, wrote at the time it was introduced that the policy was the best available way for Twitter to protect free speech while also trying to expand its network into new parts of the world. As she described it in a blog post:

“In my opinion, with this policy, Twitter is fighting to protect free speech on Twitter as best it possibly can… previously, when Twitter would take down content when forced to do so by a court order, it would disappear globally. Now, it will only be gone in the specific country in which the court order is applicable. This is a great improvement.”

As Tufekci pointed out, Twitter’s approach is a lot better than that taken by Facebook, which routinely deletes content from its platform with little or no warning, and virtually no attempt at transparency. To take just one example, pages posted by dissidents in Syria that are devoted to the chemical weapon attacks of last year are being deleted, which blogger Brown Moses has pointed out is thereby depriving the world of a crucial record of those events.

It’s also true that Twitter has a much better track record of fighting for the free-speech rights of its users than just about any other platform: it alerted users that the Justice Department was asking for their personal information in relation to a WikiLeaks investigation, even though it was asked not to do so, and it fought hard in a French court for the right not to turn over user data related to tweets that broke that country’s laws on homophobia and anti-Semitic content.

Selective censorship is still censorship

All that said, however, not everyone is convinced that selective censorship is the best possible approach for Twitter to take. Jillian York, the Director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, seemed frustrated by the company’s increasing use of the “country-withheld content” tool, judging by some of her comments on Twitter — and some critics of Tufekci’s stance on the issue have argued that the feature actually makes the problem worse by making it less obvious that censorship has occurred.

For me, the troubling thing about Twitter’s selective content-blocking tool is that, like Google’s selective adjusting of the borders between countries based on where the user is located, it almost makes censorship too easy — just another feature box that can be checked — and that encourages governments like those in Turkey and Pakistan to use it for anything that seems even remotely offensive or irritating, a list that seems to grow by the day.

By selectively removing that content or changing the borders on maps for certain users, the world becomes a little less open, without most people even realizing that it is happening. Would it be better if there was a hue and cry every time such actions were taken, so that people who don’t happen to check Chilling Effects would know about it and be able to protest? Perhaps. I confess I don’t really know. But making censorship easier shouldn’t be the goal, I don’t think.

Free speech doesn’t always succumb to a public onslaught from governments or corporations with hidden agendas and massive resources — sometimes it dies the death of a thousand small cuts, without so much as a whimper.