Last week, the internet was abuzz with anger and frustration over Twitter’s announcement that it could block content in specific countries in response to governmental requests. The majority of that buzz has quieted down, either because there are always more things about which we can get frustrated and angry or because people forgot about the whole thing pretty quickly.
At least I’m assuming it was one of these two reasons and not because cooler heads prevailed, though it would be nice if the cooler heads explanation turned out to be correct.
Let me begin by saying that I oppose censorship. My position is that people should be able to express themselves as they see fit and that there are only a very few exceptions wherein government intervention is permissible. I hold free expression to be a critically important human right.
But then let me also point to two thoughtful pieces that cast the problem faced by Twitter in a slightly different light and that might make clear that the sky isn’t necessarily falling:
[R]ather than completely taking down content (as it would do before), instead it would limit the blocks to just the geographic region. On top of that, it would be quite transparent about this — posting all info to ChillingEffects, and trying to let users know if they were visiting the page of a censored tweet.
Unfortunately, many people interpreted this as Twitter giving in to censors and allowing censorship. But that’s a misreading of the situation. Again: Twitter already takes down content when required by law. Now it’s trying to limit such takedowns. However, because people interpreted this to mean it was getting into the censorship business, there were protests against Twitter, which I think missed the point entirely.
And from Sci-Fi Hi-Fi:
I’d never argue, of course, that Internet companies should collaborate with oppressive regimes, and Google was probably wise to finally exit China entirely, but for Twitter to truly be a worldwide mass communication platform they’re going to need to acknowledge the reality of different standards of free speech around the world. The approach they’re using (e.g. notifying people when content is being withheld and why) seems nuanced and on the mark to me.
I think Google was naive in their approach to China, and perhaps a bit arrogant to think they would transform Chinese society through the power of the web and their own good intentions, but on the whole I still think the Internet is a force for free speech and transparency in the world. In my opinion, it’s better for Twitter to be available in a potentially compromised way in more sensitive parts of the world than for it to be restricted entirely.
My own position tends to line up much more closely with the argument made by the former piece rather than the latter, as the idea of “different standards of free speech around the world” strikes me as a bit wrong-headed. This lines up with the sort of thinking that claims human rights for some people — those in the global North, for example — who tend to already have access to the rights listed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — while asserting that other people or other cultures simply don’t recognize the importance of those rights.
What I’d say, instead, is that freedom of speech is equally important to people all over the world; it’s generally the repressive governments who want the ability to censor the people, not the people themselves saying they’ve simply got too much access to speech. But, as both pieces rightly point out, Twitter is making decisions in the real world, where access is being restricted, and is attempting to carve out a way for more speech and more access to communication to be allowed.
It’s not perfect … but when it comes to responding to repressive regimes and to promoting human rights around the world, perfect is a goal that’s seldom achievable.