Lingering concerns about Twitter’s censorship policy

January 31, 2012

There’s a bit of a debate going about whether Twitter’s new censorship policy is reasonable or not. My colleague Paul Smalera wrote one of the better posts leaning toward Twitter’s policy having some merits, in the way it makes it easier for those outside censoring countries to see what’s being censored. But I also see some flaws with this, which Boing Boing’s Xeni Jardin helped me realize. She calls it “a polite step down a slippery slope”

First, the very act of tweets being censored in those countries, even if those outside the country can read them, removes an early warning system for the folks in country to know of incoming danger. Let’s say, for example, there is a riot on the march toward the village they live in, or there is police activity by an oppressive regime under which they’re force to live headed their way. Twitter’s supposedly enlightened method of censorship isn’t going to protect them.

You also can’t assume everyone is a geek. Some activists use Twitter simply because it’s a broadcast medium and have no idea how to hack their way around censorship. They may have no knowledge, for example, about Tor, an application that can help sidestep the type of blocks that countries try to use to stop citizens from reaching certain bits of information or, in some cases, the entire Internet.

According to Xeni, the real reason Twitter would want to implement this policy is because they want to have a physical presence in these countries. And they can’t have boots on the ground without giving in to some of the demands of the governments in places like China, India, and in the UK, where there are more nuanced defamation laws.

It’s easy to accept censorship in other countries when you’re privileged enough to know what’s being censored. I would like to assume that the ability to see what is being censored will lead to something being done by outside parties, but that requires political courage, and possibly even military action, that many countries ravaged by global recession neither have the resources nor the stomach for.

View the full discussion that came up in response to my support for Paul’s column — “Is Twitter’s censorship policy a good one?” — on Storify.

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