Twitter policy a blow to free speech

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Author: Vivien Reece

Twitter’s recent announcement of a new country-specific censorship policy, in which an offending tweet can be blocked within its country of origin, has been greeted with a spectrum of responses that range from outrage to cautious optimism. Some human rights advocates have suggested that weaknesses in the new policy could in fact open up avenues of communication for users in countries with strict free speech laws. Meanwhile, in the absence of a censorship system, some countries may have simply banned Twitter altogether.  No one knows yet exactly how the system will affect Twitter’s role as a real-time organizing tool. Regardless of the company’s initial motive, the action that has compromised the principles of free speech on the Internet.

Twitter’s new policy threatens its role as a networking device that proved to be an integral part of real-time communication in political revolutions in the Middle East. Nevertheless, the censorship mechanism is not proactive but reactive, meaning that Twitter does not have a new algorithm to automatically delete Tweets with material deemed suspicious. Instead, Twitter will remove posts on a case-by-case basis requiring a convincing governmental appeal for a deletion. This can’t possibly be effective in the short term due to its huge number of users and the limited time-effectiveness of Tweets.

The apparent flimsiness of the censorship system may not bother activists who use Twitter for their causes, but the very principle of the policy is an affront to their vast user base. Twitter users deserve the right to represent themselves, especially on a medium that appears to have free speech at its core. Yet what we find is that Twitter’s strongest conviction seems to be its drive for more business. It has capitulated to authoritarian foreign governments, merely so its product may reach more users.

We shouldn’t romanticize Twitter’s record on defending free speech; after all, a Twitter blog post from January 2007 read, “Many countries also agree that freedom of expression carries with it responsibilities and has limits” – a poorly-veiled suggestion that Twitter would capitulate to foreign governments.

Twitter made a controversial decision that has overwhelmed many Twitter users and all supporters of free speech and democracy. It threatens the very freedom which it has the unusual ability to protect. Perhaps in the short-term the new policy won’t deny people in different countries a voice, at least through Twitter’s partnership with the online archive Chilling Effects, a joint project between the Electronic Frontier Foundation and several prominent law schools to catalog censored tweets. But the long-term consequences of this compromise — changed laws, loopholes in policy and extreme limits placed upon free speech — are dangerous, and the risk that foreign governments might continue to pressure Twitter is at the very least an uncomfortable proposition. Compromise is a slippery slope that Twitter should have never approached.

 

Vivien Reece is a sophomore ECLS major. She can be reached at vreece@oxy.edu.

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