Twitter’s Difficult Choice: The Unenviable Position of U.S. Internet Companies

BY CCIA Staff
January 27, 2012

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 expression.

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 theUSTR 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 state-owned).
  • 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 herehere 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 countries.
  • 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 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.

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