Twitter’s censorship is a gray box of shame, but not for Twitter

January 29, 2012

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:





They’re gray boxes of shame alright, but not for the user, or for Twitter. It’s instead a bright signal to a country’s online citizens that their government is limiting their free speech. While the Egypt uprisings were powerful and in some part powered by Twitter, I can easily imagine a world where a censored tweet becomes the ultimate protest symbol; one that unfortunately deprives the protesters of content, but sends the message to protesters that their worst fears are right, and they ought not give up their fight.

The press organization Reporters Without Borders has sent a letter of protest to Twitter chairman Jack Dorsey, which is surprising considering the power of the gift that Dorsey has just given them. While some reporters get themselves on the ground to report from say, Syria, nothing can stop others in the U.S. or any other country from following the tweets of Syrian protesters, even if the Syrian government requests and is granted censorship of tweets within that country.

That’s the second important note: Twitter has made no mention of disabling users’ ability to tweet or of deleting a user because their tweets have been censored. Syria or some other country may choose to take down its communications grid or try to block access to Twitter, but short of such an action, it can’t stop tweets from reaching the outside world under this policy. In fact Twitter has strengthened its case to remain online in countries where free speech is threatened, possibly providing protesters with a valuable tool that would otherwise have been preemptively shut down.

If a government does engage in a cat-and-mouse game of blocking access, remember that nowhere else is the playing field more level between authorities and insurgents than online. Workarounds for Twitter blocks already exist, such as proxy servers that spoof the identity of users and their country of origin, and alternative access points (APIs) to reach the Twitter service.

Finally, reputation matters. Twitter has engendered much goodwill in the tech and international communities by its sterling behavior in both worlds. This is the company that put off a server upgrade to keep the tweets flowing from the Iran uprising in 2009, at the request of the U.S. State Department. It’s a company that’s managed to play by the rules while also leveling the playing field of communication as no other service has since Alexander Bell’s telephone. There’s nothing about this announcement that smacks of any change in policy or attitude; rather it seems like an honest attempt to abide by country-specific rules of law, while also exposing the power of those laws to citizens in countries where freedoms have been abridged. (Forbes as an example, mentions it is illegal to insult a French bureaucrat. One can imagine the uprising in France if the government tried to censor a Tweet insulting Sarkozy or one of his ministers, which would presumably lead to a rapid re-writing of that law.)

As long as no country can ever make a claim to censor a tweet on a worldwide basis, that tweet will exist somewhere on Twitter’s servers, and someone will be able to see it. By laying down clear rules for country-specific censorship, Twitter has implicitly stated that no government, company or individual has the power to eradicate a tweet it doesn’t like from the face the Earth. Twitter has laid down the rules by which it will hold countries accountable, and by which it will hold itself accountable, at least when it comes to censorship.

They are so fair as to be without precedent, and if they are violated, the world presumably will be able to see the hypocrisy in an instant. That’s a maturity that many — governments, corporations, and yes, sniping tweeters — have rarely shown when it comes to censorship or privacy policies. (Hello, SOPA, PIPA, ACTA, DMCA, Facebook and the rest!)

Besides, if Twitter were as evil as its critics would have us believe, would we be able to see the results of the ongoing #TwitterBlackout? If we are living in a world where corporations have more power than government, I’ll take that level of transparency from a new media company, every day.


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The censorship seems to have been handled as well as possible.

Posted by Transcendian | Report as abusive

It’s A shame really! Maybe this is why Prince Waleed of KSA bought 300M USD in twitter shares few weeks ago.

First, Google submits to the Chinese and now twitter to virtually any government!..the US senate is debating PIPA and SOPA!! Long live conspiracy theory!

Posted by Zedd | Report as abusive

Did you actually read the article, Zedd?

Posted by RileyCalaby | Report as abusive

This is a very fair and reasoned look at the issue from Mr. Smalera. Unfortunately the internet moves faster than fairness and reason, and people are already up in arms for nothing. Instead of trying to compose a more nuanced and complex worldview, knee-jerk denunciation seems to be the trendy thing these days.

But as this article says, it’s time for the internet to grow up, and that’s the only way that people will become more reasoned in their responses to things like this.

Posted by Nullcorp | Report as abusive

Censorship is obviously on the offensive. It is a scary and escalating threat to our freedom, which isn’t going to go away unless collectively we wake up.

Here is another example, which equates to censorship by news suppression. An internet film has been released exposing corruption by the Australian government. The media response there? SILENCE. Here’s the film:

Shocking, and a direct result of the lack of plurality of media ownership there.

Posted by MadamGeeky | Report as abusive

I’m pretty sick of a bunch of whiners that sit back and cry about what someone else is doing. If they’re so incensed about this “censorship” and want to “do something about it” how about take some of THEIR money and build a competing service? No, they’ll never take the risk or even put out the effort, they’ll just get upset about someone else having to work in the REAL world.

Whiners of the world: Either build your OWN system putting up your own money and spending your own time to run it, or STFU. If you ever had to deal with the many laws and regulations pushed on business by Progressive Liberals (most of which YOU are) then you’d think differently. Instead, you sit back and b*tch about how others provide YOU services.

Posted by iq160 | Report as abusive

disagree with your reasoning if the end result of a successful censorship request is (quote) “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…. it’s instead a bright signal to a country’s online citizens that their government is limiting their free speech.”

condoms for tweets and safe social intercourse
timid walter mitty comes to mind … ‘bright signals’ and all

@ iq160 – finding alternatives to restrictive laws are the jouissance of internetting

Posted by scythe | Report as abusive

After a half-century of fighting for civil rights and civil liberties in the United States; national liberation movements in the 3rd World – I still won’t accept the arrogance of American tea party liberals [deliberately lower case] who feel they have the right to tell the whole world at what rate they accede to what amount of Jeffersonian democracy.

I’m as workingclass progressive and Leftwing as they come – but, that’s tempered by an interest in understanding the history of other nations and other people. Most of whom have existed within their own culture a helluva lot longer than folks living within geographic boundaries that protected us from the wars and invasions suffered by others.

Don’t joke too much about France for an example. 50 years ago was the first time I got on a bus there and went to sit on an empty seat in the front of the crowd – and the driver politely explained to me those seats were reserved for the invalids of war. If the signs aren’t still there – and they may not be – it’s because that generation is dying out.

The memories aren’t.

Posted by Eideard | Report as abusive

This is an incredibly first world perspective on regional censorship of twitter. I don’t know where to begin. Firstly the idea that a protester in a country with a psychoticly oppressive regime (like say Syria) will take the block message as a sign to carry on fighting and not a warning that their protests have been flagged and their life is now in danger, is incredibly naive. In case you forgot Twitter has already given up private information to conform to the UK super injunction law over the Ryan Giggs Scandal. To think they’re going to protect someone in Syria or the like is grossly naive. Secondly assuming that because people, outside that oppressive regime can still read that tweet will lead to some political action is again blindly naive. People in first world countries have been reading, in Time and other publications, about abuse of human rights under oppressive regimes for decades, and it has done people living under those regimes very little good. Despite the claims social media globally want to make about their role in the Arab spring the only tweets that mattered was the ones left by

Posted by Mzamurman | Report as abusive

Gah hit send by mistake. To continue the only relevant tweets during the first few days of the Egyptian were those sent from within the country. After the internet blackout people had to turn to CB radio to organize. The censorship of twitter in oppressive regimes means the voice of the oppressed is silenced. Whether arm chair liberals hear them or not means little to those who live in fear. Only the knowledge that others sharing their plight are willing to fight back will make a difference. Twitter has just turned its back on millions of people living under oppressive regimes. This is cowardly behavior. And supporting it as a journalist is not only cowardly but shows a calouslness towards an issue you should be reporting in an unbiased light.

Posted by Mzamurman | Report as abusive

“”"They’re gray boxes of shame alright, but not for the user, or for Twitter. It’s instead a bright signal to a country’s online citizens that their government is limiting their free speech.

Can you retweet a grey box? If not, there is little chance such signals are going to be seen by a wide audience.

What is really to be hoped is such services remain opened to anonymizing networks.

Posted by pmezard | Report as abusive

“While the Egypt uprisings were powerful and in some part powered by Twitter, I can easily imagine a world where a censored tweet becomes the ultimate protest symbol; one that unfortunately deprives the protesters of content, but sends the message to protesters that their worst fears are right, and they ought not give up their fight.”

Right, as if any of the protesters throughout the Arab world needed Twitter to tell them that their government was limiting their right to free speech. It’s absurd to laud Twitter for raising awareness of censorship by censoring.

“One can imagine the uprising in France if the government tried to censor a Tweet insulting Sarkozy or one of his ministers, which would presumably lead to a rapid re-writing of that law.”

France isn’t really the issue here, is it? Will an uprising in Syria because of a censored tweet cause Damascus to reassess its policies? Besides, how will the French or Syrian citizens know what they’re protesting about? The content of the offending tweet will have been censored in their country.

Posted by MForgue | Report as abusive

There are still many ways to work around being blocked by offending countries, such as changing ones IP to reflect living in another country where access to the tweet would be available. Though I do not agree with censorship, this is much better than completely removing the message as Twitter was previously doing. This at least is still allowing access to the site. Many protesters in these oppressed countries are very tech savvy and can still organize through the means of social media. Twitter’s new policy though may be there to appease these oppressive and totalitarian countries, still allows protesters to communicate with each other and the outside world.  /2012/01/twitters-new-censorship-policy -win-for.html

Posted by Cdub420 | Report as abusive

Yes, thank you! Here’s the thing: as described here ( the combination of being able to viewed blocked tweets from other countries and the publicizing of the takedown notices on ChillingEffects means that “Censored” stories will never die. There is an easy workaround for the blocking by country, and other methods will probably emerge as well. Twitter also moves too quickly for takedown notices, of which ALL 4411 have been DMCA-related, clustered, and from the UK & US. Graphics and data sets available on IBM’s many eyes ( You really have to look at the bigger picture.

Posted by aschrock | Report as abusive

This argument assumes a lot. To your point, do we need gray boxes to tell us which countries stifle online speech, or *new protest symbols in a sea of them? The overriding issue is the lack of full and complete transparency in Twitter’s methods and capabilities to censor tweets. For example:

- What does a “valid and properly scoped request from an authorized entity” mean?
- What information is required — a court order, a phone call?
- Who is considered an authorized entity — anyone familiar with a country’s law?
- Are members of a country’s news media or press exempt from censorship?
- Can requests for censorship be submitted in bulk, by keyword or by user?
- What is the criteria used for censoring a tweet? Is it only law?
- Is there a deliberation process? If so, what happens to the content during that time?
- Can tweets *coming into a country* be censored from view within that same country?
- Is any part of the technical act involved in censoring a tweet an automated process?
- When will requests be posted to Chilling Effects? Before, after, and if after, how long?

Take this quote from Twitter, also referenced above:

“…Upon receipt of requests to withhold content we will promptly notify affected users, *unless we are legally prohibited from doing so*, and clearly indicate to viewers when content has been withheld.”

- Could Twitter be legally prohibited from sharing a censorship request at all?
- Could Twitter be legally prohibited from indicating content was ever withheld?

It’s not clear, and presents a slippery slope potentially frightening to some. Questioning censorship practices is important and necessary, and these are basic questions I would expect a journalist to be asking. But instead, you’re promoting gray boxes as protest symbols… Forgive me, but I’m confused. Twitter should be 100% clear with its methods and capabilities. Instead, it’s translucent at best.

Posted by michsineath | Report as abusive

RE: #URLburning on Twitter

Hi Paul, I have been experiencing a form of censorship on Twitter that I nickname “URL burning.” Basically, Twitter appears to blacklist a URL so that if two tweets are identical except for a URL, the URL tweet gets killed from a hashtag stream if it contains the blacklisted URL and is tweeted by the censored user’s account. You can visit the hashtag #URLburning to see a little more about it. It is very easily replicable. Anybody’s guess whether Twitter is using programs or people to blacklist URLs, but the behaviour is very very clear and easy to duplicate.

This can kill a fledgling tweeters ability to expand a message and deeply cuts into: (1) retweets (2) new followers (3) traffic to a truly relevant website. When you think about it, the mechanism on twitters end is literally and aggressively killing an information flow.

Posted by KSager | Report as abusive