Twitter’s Difficult Choice: The Unenviable Position of U.S. Internet Companies
Yesterday, Twitter announced
that it had created a targeted solution to removing locally
“illegal” material on a country-by-country basis. Perhaps understandably, the company has been accused of abetting
censorship, particularly because Twitter is one of the online platforms that
has played such an important role in empowering traditionally silenced minority
groups, democracy activists and protestors around the world.
However, when examining the details of Twitter’s new policy
and the broader economic, technological and political climate it faces, taking
this view would unfairly malign a company with an exemplary track record on
freedom of expression. The current
situation is untenable in that it pits individual companies against powerful
governments. Any individual
company, no matter how large, cannot be expected to carry the banner of freedom
alone in a conflict with governments.
Our industry takes great pride in the fact that technology has greatly
expanded the scope and freedom of social and political interaction. We do not want to see restrictions on
an open Internet. However, even
the most responsible public corporation has limited influence over matters of
geopolitics, national diplomacy and international trade negotiations.
Infuriated users and companies should pressure their own
governments to use the resources of the state to assert diplomatic and trade
pressure on countries that do not subscribe to internationally accepted norms on freedom of
In the United States, it is up to the Administration, including
the State Department and the United States Trade Representative (USTR), to make
opposing censorship a diplomatic priority, as such actions fly in the face of
traditional U.S. diplomatic efforts on both the human rights and trade
fronts. In fact, CCIA applauds
ongoing efforts by both the State Department
and the USTR
in this arena, but it must be a higher priority.
An examination of the current landscape the company faces may
shed light on why the company did what it did.
- Advances in the technology of censorship often
make principled “all-or-nothing” stands against censorship by individual
companies relatively futile.
The OpenNet Initiative has produced
a series of books outlining, among other things, the evolving ability of
countries to control the access of their citizens to the web. Where it was once true that “the net
interprets censorship as damage and routes around it,” new technologies,
such as deep-packet inspection, give countries the ability to impose their will
on the Internet like never before (especially when the telecom operators are
- Twitter is in a highly competitive and fast
moving market. International
Political Economy studies have long shown that multinational companies in
inherently competitive industries hold little power over foreign governments
because they can be easily replaced and/or mimicked (see here,
here and here). In fact, Chinese blocking of Twitter, Facebook and Google
has given rise to successful domestic imitations of all three sites. Chinese blocking of Twitter has allowed
its Chinese competitor, Weibo, to drastically increase its marketshare. As of 2011, half of all Chinese Internet
users use microblogging services, even though Twitter is still blocked.
- As has already been illustrated in China,
domestic companies who are more willing to cozy up to government censors would quickly
fill the space vacated by blocked web services such as Twitter. In fact, these companies have a history
of complying with government demands more expansively and less transparently than
U.S. companies (and sometimes even more proactively),
and they traditionally provide little, if any, pushback.
Given the extenuating circumstances, Twitter managed to
design a system of compliance with domestic laws that still does all it can to
promote free expression.
It bears noting that under Twitter’s new process:
- Tweets will only be removed within the country where
they are in conflict with domestic law.
This design involved considerable engineering time and effort to pull
off. The rest of the world will
still be able to view and post messages that may be illegal in specific
- Users will be clearly informed when their tweets
are removed. This will hopefully
encourage them to direct political pressure at the organs of government that
make censorship decisions.
- Instances of censorship will be reported to ChillingEffects.org. This censorship archive, run by the Electronic
Frontier Foundation and several law school clinics, allows Internet users and
researchers to catalogue and study censorship. This transparency helps governments and NGOs use the levers
of the international political system to pressure countries that do not comply
with international norms.
CCIA has long championed a full-court diplomatic press on
Internet freedom (a few examples can be found here
and hopes that this unfortunate incident will shine more light on the problem
of Internet censorship and encourage more Americans and citizens the world over
to ratchet up pressure on their governments to affect change.
In fact, this Administration’s foreign policy agenda has benefited
greatly from social media companies, such as Twitter. If there is any event that should compel the U.S. government
to go to bat for the free flow of information worldwide, it is this sobering
announcement from a company that has done so much to help make manifest the
goals of democracy advocates throughout the world.