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Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Column: Tweet nothings

The internet is supposed to be a free and open enterprise. I’m sure it was at some point but, nowadays, it seems as though the internet is just enterprise. With such large profits to be made and to be lost, is it possible for companies like Google and Facebook to see past their corporate interest to protect the freedoms of speech and expression that the internet was supposed to foster and facilitate?

I got to thinking about censorship after Twitter made a small but significant change to their guidelines last week that I believe resolves a lot of issues facing sites with user-generated content.

Twitter announced that it would remove tweets only in specific countries where the content was considered unlawful, and leave the message online for the rest of the web. What caught my attention was that this move toward seemingly more censorship actually makes for less censorship overall.

If a country requests that Twitter remove a tweet, the tweet in question will be blocked only for users whose IP addresses are from that particular country. Previously, Twitter would have blocked the tweet for everyone, but can now do so on a case-by-case basis.

The policy is an interesting approach to a widespread problem — that not all freedoms of speech are created equal. In Twitter’s official blog post addressing the change, “Tweets Still Must Flow,” the company explained that countries outside the U.S. have particular restrictions for “historical or cultural reasons” such as France and Germany who, understandably, prohibit pro-Nazi content in all their media.

Complying to certain countries’ codes of online conduct does, however, raise another question. Is being complicit in censorship — no matter how minor or justified — simply perpetuating the problem instead of actively working against it? I can name a few countries wherein communications constraints aren’t so reasonable (ahem, China). After the announcement, mobile developer Terence Eden, tweeted, “I helped develop a Twitter client that Chinese pro-democracy activists used. Guess that’s dead now. Thanks, Twitter.”

I imagine that Twitter isn’t only concerned for the wellbeing of civil liberties. I’m sure profit margins are on their minds, too. If Twitter extends its dominance into the international market, then it MUST comply with countries’ policies in order to compete with other networking services — even if those policies are discriminatory. As with all advertising schemes, Twitter’s promotional services become more valuable when it makes itself available to more users, in more countries.

Despite this, I am hesitant to accuse Twitter of having too strong a corporate mentality. They trail far behind the aforementioned tech behemoths in profits and manage a much smaller operation.

The company has also famously stood up against government orders when others did not. When the feds requested that Twitter hand over information regarding users connected with Wikileaks, it successfully fought a gag order that would have prevented the company from publicizing the request and notifying those users (giving them time to defend themselves against such an investigation).

Twitter has continued in this same vein, publicizing all its cease-and-desist requests on ChillingEffects.org/twitter. Google also deserves accolades for posting to this site, as well as its own transparency report, which offers great country-by-country visualizations of content removal requests. Facebook, on the other hand, provides no such data.

By virtue of its role in protest organization around the world, Twitter will be subjected to close examination as it exercises its new policy. I remain optimistic, maybe naively, about the company’s intentions. It is, after all, a service that can even seem a little too free and too open. Let us not forget the unfortunate case of Mr. Anthony Weiner who, thanks to Twitter, left very little to the imagination.

NICOLE NGUYEN’s home tweet home is @itsnicolenguyen, but send your sweet nothings to niknguyen@ucdavis.edu.

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