While Twitter censorship has the power to make countries safer, it also has the ability to reinforce oppressive regimes and subvert democratic voices and movements. Yet whichever way you spin it, censorship of tweets blocks a citizen’s right to complete freedom of expression.
Twitter recently made the decision to enact a censorship policy that would allow the website to censor tweets itself. What this might actually mean for our freedom of speech remains unclear, though.
On Jan. 28, Twitter management posted this statement in their blog, which was signed by co-founder Biz Stone:
“Starting today, we give ourselves the ability to reactively withhold content from users in a specific country — while keeping it available in the rest of the world.”
So what does this mean for us?
Twitter will only be blocking tweets that are illegal under local and national government laws.
In a response to Twitter's action, the U.S. government reassured the nation that it was committed to upholding freedom of speech.
To me, this is a sneaky way to spin the story - claiming it's a decision for the people when really it's compromising between freedom of expression and government control. Even if, as some claim, this isn't a symbol or meant to support censorship, there's no way this won't become a symbol after the year twitter and social media just finished.
U.S. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nualand stated last Friday, “ We [the U.S. government] are strongly committed to protecting fundamental freedoms of expression, assembly, and association online.”
However, anyone caught up on recent events most likely cannot help but read this statement with a very large grain of salt.
After all, it was only a few weeks ago that Congress was forced to pull the plug on S.O.P.A. and P.I. P.A. when America voiced a huge outcry against what they felt was a subversion of their right to free speech online.
Yet Twitter has also made it clear that despite the new policy, tweets will not actually be deleted completely from online existence. Tweets will be made unavailable for viewing in those regions or countries only, and will still be available for viewing outside of those areas.
Still, government bodies outside of the U.S. have already begun to take advantage of the site’s voluntary move to censor.
Brazil, the first country to have explicitly taken advantage of the policy, has asked Twitter to block tweets that would inform citizens of locations for radar traps, drunk-driving checkpoints, and roadblocks. Of course it makes sense that the Brazilian government would want to keep such methods of law enforcement effective by protecting the secrecy of their locations, yet not all governments may have as altruistic of intentions.
Governments like that of Egypt might consider it illegal when activists send tweets alerting others of needed medical and food supplies in Tahrir square.
In other words, while Twitter censorship has the power to make countries safer, it also has the ability to reinforce oppressive regimes and subvert democratic voices and movements.
While this sounds scary, Twitter’s prior record of blocking tweets show that its new policy may not really be anything new.
Mashable.com writer Josh Catone says this about the censorship policy:
“Previously, blocking tweets had to be done globally, meaning if an oppressive regime asked Twitter to remove a tweet or block a user, it had to be done for everyone in the world. Now, Twitter can remove that tweet in that country, but allow the world to see it.”
So while Twitter has now made clear that it will block tweets according to country laws, it can now give people a opportunity to view tweets outside of that country and lower the chances that the sight will be blocked in that country altogether.
Yet whichever way you spin it, censorship of tweets blocks a citizen’s right to complete freedom of expression.
“To me, this is a sneaky way to spin the story - claiming it's a decision for the people when really it's compromising between freedom of expression and government control," said Basia Borodziewicz, a senior at UT. "Even if, as some claim, this isn't a symbol or meant to support censorship, there's no way this won't become a symbol after the year twitter and social media just finished.”
What will the symbol of twitter’s move to censor be for Americans?
So far the answer is unclear to both the government and it citizens.
“… until we see how they are implemented and how it influences content, we obviously can’t evaluate whether this is, you know, a good thing or not for Internet freedom,” said spokeswoman Nualand.
Movements in the U.S. mainly composed of young tech-savvy adults such as Occupy Wall Street who have already felt the pain from government crackdowns may find themselves being attacked on a whole new communication medium.
Yet the truth remains that many internet search engines and social media sites continue to actively censor user content and searches.
“There are many companies out there that make these decisions without being transparent, either to their users or to the world," said Neuland.
What remains to be seen now is whether or not our constitutional right to unconditional free speech will be upheld online.