Twitter Debacle: Complying With International Law Or Censorship?

The online world was up in arms last week after Twitter announced they would be complying with local speech laws around the world. The service would be taking down tweets that the local government deemed illegal. Obviously the chorus of “Censorship!” was deafening. The short-form social media network has been ground-zero for a range of popular uprisings from Iran to the “Arab Spring,” used to organize protests and disseminate breaking news stopped by official censors.

So, it comes as no surprise that a wide range of players, especially in the countries most affected by draconian suppression of free speech, have been vocal about the announcement.

Twitter founder Biz Stone came out with a clarification this week, stating that the blog post was poorly worded and that the company is fully committed to free speech across the globe. To wit, they most likely have a legal obligation to comply with local laws in countries in which they operate . With that, they will only be removing “offending” tweets in that specific country using Geo-filtering.

For instance, it is illegal to post anything pro-Nazi in France. If French authorities see a tweet praising the Third Reich, they would request Twitter remove it. It will then be removed and be replaced with a Tweet mentioning the removal, but only in France. The original would still be visible around the world. This removal also would not take into account retweets, which would continue on their merry way.

While this may have some affect on the organizing of local protests, the main added value of Twitter, in this case, remains.

That brings us to exactly what it is that makes Twitter such a wonderful tool for the modern age. It is the ultimate disintermediation of information. Without the need for the traditional gatekeepers of news, it now can flow directly from observers on-site to all corners of the world.  With approximately 300 million subscriber accounts producing  over a billion tweets every four days, the amount of information flowing through the system is mind boggling. While much of it is banal at best, the unregulated nature of it is perfectly suited for the democratization of information.

Which returns us to Twitter’s original announcement. They are, to some extent, in damned if the do/damned if they don’t situation. At what point does a legal request become immoral quashing of free speech? Nobody is saying Twitter shouldn’t remove tweets calling for the murder of a favored politician, for example.

At that point it comes down to, as Churchill quipped, haggling about price. Every country has its own laws, many we might not agree with, but they, I’m sure, disagree with some of ours. This may look like a decent into moral relativism, but it isn’t. There isn’t a value judgment here. There is only the stark reality of doing business in the international arena.

Stone has claimed that Twitter has set up a mechanism where countries can complain about content that fits the local definition of illegal and have it removed. This is, in his words, ridiculously difficult. Local users won’t see the tweet, but will see, in its place, a tweet mentioning the “silly” law that resulted in the tweet’s removal. He also went on to say that there is no way that Twitter will be doing any business with China, because of its speech policies.

The bottom line is that Twitter has time and again shown its dedication to free speech while navigating the rocky waters of international law.