Twitter’s announcement this week that it was going to enable country-specific censorship of posts is arousing fury around the Internet. Commentators, activists, protesters and netizens have said it’s “very bad news” and claim to be “#outraged”. Bianca Jagger, for one, asked how to go about boycotting Twitter, on Twitter, according to the New York Times. (Step one might be… well, never mind.) The critics have settled on #TwitterBlackout: all day on Saturday the 28th, they promised to not tweet, as a show of protest and solidarity with those who might be censored.
Here’s the thing: Like Twitter itself, it’s time for the Internet, and its chirping classes, to grow up. Twitter’s policy and its transparency pledge with the censorship watchdog Chilling Effects is the most thoughtful, honest and realistic policy to come out of a technology company in a long time. Even an unsympathetic reading of the new censorship policy bears that out.
To understand why, let’s unpack the policy a bit: First, Twitter has strongly implied it will not remove content under this policy. If that doesn’t sound like a crucial distinction from outright censorship, it is. Taking the new policy with existing ones, the only time Twitter says it will ever remove a tweet altogether is in response to a DMCA request. The DMCA may have its own flaws, but it is a form of censorship that lives separately from the process Twitter has outlined in this recent announcement. Where the DMCA process demands a deletion of copyright-infringing content, Twitter’s censorship policy promises no such takedown: it promises instead only to withhold censored content from the country where the content has been censored. Nothing else.
To be sure, that’s censorship of a kind, but compared to the industry censorship even Americans have long lived with — take the Motion Picture Association of America, which still censors films based on dubious standards of taste and morality — it’s positively enlightened. And it never permanently destroys or pre-empts content, the way the MPAA does.
Further, for a country to censor content, it has to make a “valid and properly scoped request from an authorized entity” to Twitter, which will then decide what to do with the request. Twitter will also make an effort to notify users whose content is censored about what happened and why, and even give them a method to challenge the request. According to Twitter’s post, a record of the action will also be filed to the Chilling Effects website. The end result of a successful request is that the tweet or user in question is replaced by a gray box that notifies other readers inside the censoring country that the Tweet has been censored: