Is Twitter’s country-specific censorship a bad thing?

I’m fairly new to the world of Twitter; in fact, I’ve only been using the network since I started writing for Whim in February. But long before I started following, hashtagging and retweeting, I was aware of the impact that a 140-character chunk of thought could have. Most memorably, the 2010 Arab Spring protests showed me — and countless others — just how powerful a tool this sort of media could become.

Image from Irdiplomacy.ir.

A new announcement from Twitter executives explained an important policy change that would, in essence, comply with individual countries’ censorship laws. Tweets that violated established legal codes for expression and speech could be deleted, and user accounts could be suspended for repeated violations.

This move has prompted a storm of controversy, particularly among activists of the Arab Spring type, who worry that the policy will encourage government censorship of free speech in what was previously an international open forum. Without protections from the website itself, Twitter users fear that they will lose one of their only consistently open outlets for free expression of dissident opinion.

My understanding of the case, however, is somewhat different. The Twitter policymakers seem to have taken great care to lessen the active implementation of government censorship. The new policy would allow tweets that broke laws in one locale to remain on the website in other countries — a shift from current practice, where tweets taken down by the website itself disappear from the site record entirely. Isn’t it better to leave these sorts of tweets available as much as possible?

Twitter has also resolved to stage extensive legal reviews for each removal request, and to post all removal requests on ChillingEffects, which works to promote fairness and ethical practice on the Internet.

What will Twitter do next? Image from Twitter.com.

Furthermore, by attempting to comply with diverse local laws, Twitter is actually assuring themselves more of a foothold in the most repressive regimes. Countries that previously objected to the encouragement of free and open discussion on the website may be appeased by the move towards respect for their own, more restrictive laws — and they cannot object to the company’s decision to leave censored tweets up on other nations’ feeds, at least without being more openly and obviously repressive in the eyes of the world.

I can easily see how a quick read of the new policy could raise concern; in fact, my initial reaction to the headlines was indignation and a resolve to expose the problem. But real examination of any news item is needed to gain a full understanding of the issue at hand. In my opinion, Twitter has made a real and significant commitment to fighting censorship while running their website.

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