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About Twitter and Google censorship: another Waging Nonviolence article

Wrote up a short article for Nathan and Eric’s blog again, this time on Google and Twitter’s recent announcements that they would begin restricting content more tightly in foreign countries.

Nathan pointed me to a very astute comment by Thomas Clark Wilson on WNV’s Facebook page, which I thought was worth reprinting here:

The actual details of what they’re doing will make it easier to circumvent censorship than it is just now. Tweeters in, say, Egypt, don’t just rely on tweets within their own country to organise, but also RTs and such from foreign accounts. Before this policy; censor a tweet in Egypt and nobody can see it. After this policy; censor a tweet in Egypt and some American can still see it, quote it, and send it back into the fray.

Besides, the contention in this article that ‘they might bend to shady censorship requests even though they say they’ll play nice’ has *always* been a danger, this policy hasn’t changed that fact. Yeah it would be super swell if they took a stand an said no to any censorship, but twitter’s a business not a revolutionary tech collective. Recognise it as a tool, an use it wisely.

My response, just for posterity’s sake:

That’s a great point Thomas. Indeed, this isn’t some sort of smoking gun revelation, merely an acknowledgment and reminder from Twitter that they are a business and not some sort of utopia maker.

As for circumvention methods, other ways potentially include setting your home country to say the U.S. so you don’t have restrictions. But we have to assume that Twitter and any governments that would want to utilize Twitter’s restrictions are obviously aware of these limitations that would make the whole thing pointless and would implement things like IP detection. Also, floods of foreign retweets might make it too hard to stomp out every one, but for smaller, budding movements these tools do allow governments to snuff out incohate organizing. And even if a few foreign retweets get out, location shouldn’t matter. They would in all likelihood also be blocked because they would bear the same illegal content as the original local one. This would just be the first step of potential cat and mouse games, with governments likely requesting that Twitter move faster to remove such posts and with Twitter employing more active monitoring–once something has been blocked in a country and it knows the government wants future instances of such content blocked, it could employ some kind of flagging system to warn employees that this is another potentially illegal post and give them a chance to take instant action when requested.

But if none of this comes to be, then Twitter is the good guy, and we have no major reason to expect them to bend over backwards to regimes and governments whose values are so antithetical to those of the Internet’s. But one has to look at the trajectory here–this is a step in the other direction from an open Internet. And wouldn’t it be foolish for Twitter to take such a PR hit without following through on actually providing a credible oand functional option to regulate content in countries? Why make yourself look so bad and buddy up to censorship regimes when you know you’re only going to half heartedly enforce these sorts of things.

But your points are well taken. In the short-term Twitter should still be safe and useful, but this announcement definitely makes the future of Twitter as a revolutionary tool cloudier.

That’s all I got for now. Still working mightily on Blockedonweibo (now reachable via www.blockedonweibo.com) which I hope to start sharing more publicly in the next week or two (once I finish writing up a short summary for Nathan and Eric at WNV), so things will probably once again go quiet here for a bit.

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