Twitter has done the unthinkable. In the aim of broadening its audience share — which might include restrictive regimes — the microblogging service has recently announced that it will be implementing selective censorship of tweets, when the law requires it. The effort has been criticized by free-speech advocates and lauded by certain sectors as supportive of their efforts to control the flow of information. Still, Twitter’s CEO denies that they are actually for censorship, and that the move is intended as a means to give them access to China.
Last week, Twitter blogged that “tweets must still flow,” in reference to a post in the previous year where Twitter espoused the free flow of information. According to the blog post, Twitter will give itself the ability to selectively censor tweets when requested by legal entities. This, they say, will actually help with the flow of information, since governments that prefer to censor the Internet are likely to allow access to Twitter if they are cooperative.
Pro-freedom of information advocates have criticized this move. Reporters Without Borders director Olivier Basille says this “violates international free speech standards.” Sara Lacy writes at Pando Daily, though, that “Twitter never promised to save the world.” If there’s one thing, Twitter does not actually explicitly say it wants to enter markets like China. But reading between the lines, Twitter’s latest move is one motivated more by commerce than altruism.
Twitter’s stated goal was to make its service accessible to anyone in the world. All of its other policies– allowing anonymous user names, operating over basic SMS for free– were all designed to make that simple goal possible. And given the world we live in, this was a necessary step to make that happen.
Moreover, it doesn’t help that the Chinese government seems to be supportive of Twitter’s agreeing to censor posts on a per-country basis. The People’s Daily, considered to be a mouthpiece of the Communist Party in China, has lauded this decision, adding that “boundless freedom” is impossible.
It is impossible to have boundless freedom, even on the Internet and even in countries that make freedom their main selling point.
The announcement of Twitter might have shown that it has already realized the fact and made a choice between being an idealistic political tool as many hope and following pragmatic commercial rules as a company.
Twitter’s Dick Costolo, in an interview with All Things D, adds that the company does not actually change its stance or attitude towards freedom of information. He further denied that all this was meant as a way to get into China. “I don’t think the current environment in China is one in which we could operate,” he said.
What is different now is that Twitter wants to adhere to local laws, while still giving access to as many users possible. “When we receive one of those, we want to leave the content up for as many people as possible while adhering to the local law.”
In the end, the People’s Daily might be right. Even Pando Daily‘s Lacy says she doesn’t necessarily disagree with how China has lauded Twitter’s pragmatism. Even in societies built on freedoms of expression and speech, having “boundless freedom” should be taken with a bit of responsibility.
Take for instance the case of the British travelers who were detained and deported by U.S. authorities on the grounds of their tweeting apparently threatening messages. Another example would be a tweet by British businessman Paul Chambers in 2012 — even when said in jest — which was enough to tag him as a terrorist threat. The Department of Homeland Security is being urged to monitor social media for possible threats. This doesn’t mean that the U.S. wants to limit tweets, but authorities do warn everyone to be careful about what they say, lest they be tagged as terrorists, too.