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What Twitter's New Censorship Policy Means for Human Rights

Posted: 02/01/2012 3:39 pm

Twitter dropped quite the shocker last week when it declared its new policy to remove tweets in certain countries to abide by specific national laws. While a tweet will remain visible to the rest of the world, specific messages will disappear in the target country (e.g., following requests by governments).

The ensuing backlash saw a lot of people screaming "censorship" (ironically, on Twitter). While the first wave of criticism has quickly calmed down, for a human rights watchdog, the announcement is quite alarming:

"As we continue to grow internationally, we will enter countries that have different ideas about the contours of freedom of expression... Until now, the only way we could take account of those countries' limits was to remove content globally. Starting today, we give ourselves the ability to reactively withhold content from users in a specific country -- while keeping it available in the rest of the world.

A new policy for old-school repression

Twitter claims that this isn't a dramatic shift in policy, but rather clarification of existing policy, with a "fix." Previous removals of content were global, for example, when they removed a tweet, no one could see it anywhere. Now, country-by-country, Twitter can block content specially tailored to that country. In a bizarre logic, the increase in control of information in response to government demands means, according to Twitter -- less 'censorship.'

One may incredulously respond that country-specific removal would further disadvantage people who saw Twitter as a means of circumventing illegal restrictions on their speech and expression. Further disadvantaging people who've turned to the service as a means of empowering themselves through voice, assembly, and access to information.

Though there has been an outpouring of anger in response, some are quite pleased. Today, Thailand became the first government to publicly endorse Twitter's decision. China and Iran haven't made any statements (China's state-run newspaper did praise the move), but I suspect they're pleased, as are several other governments that have sought to shut down Twitter at the first sign of dissent.

As an aside I should note that -- as with any attempt to control information (see my post on SOPA/PIPA -- there are already easy ways -- five at last count -- to bypass Twitter's blocks.

Outrage and tough choices

I've appreciated the outrage, given the importance (not to be confused with value) of Twitter. I have no doubt that information posted on Twitter -- and any other large public networking platform -- has resulted in all manner of things, from the terrible, to the great.

We know that information spread via Twitter has saved countless lives, from natural disasters such as in Japan or in humanitarian crises, such as in Cote d'Ivoire. Twitter has contributed to regime change in repressive places. It has even helped free a prisoner in Kashmir and has become a valuable network for citizen journalists and concerned citizens, such as in Mexico. It is a medium by which human rights advocates carry forward their work, such as our Eyes on Syria project (look for #EyesonSyria -- but maybe not if you are in Syria), or Amnesty's own Twitter account.

But for all of these goods, information on Twitter has surely created harm. In crisis, it can become a dangerous medium for rumors or misinformation (or "terrorism" charges). Al-Shabab's recent banning of the International Red Cross (a violation of international law of the highest order) was communicated via Twitter. Indeed, Kenya's military has been fighting Al-Shabab on the ground, as well as in the twitterverse.

Importantly, information has no inherent value... it is the effect of the content that lends moral weight.

Twitter has never had to make difficult decisions about that content, however. Twitter has never had to be responsible for controlling content in the manner its new policy will require of it. And Twitter will be called on by governments around the world to censor. The cat is out of the bag, and the decisions that will need to be made by Twitter lawyers and staff should give them sleepless nights. At some point -- somewhere -- harm will be done by those choices. Voices will be silenced. Lives will be lost. Twitter will inevitably make mistakes, and the world will be different as a result. It is a power it would have been wise to deny having.

The stark fact is that -- like traditional media, housing, agriculture, or any of the other sectors upon which humanity's ability to fully enjoy their human rights is dependent -- profit motivates great innovations in the digital world. Profit also motivates consolidation and control.

The source of the immense outrage over the policy says more about our collective confusion over digital networking tools than Twitter's policy. Twitter is seen as a public good. But it is not. Twitter is a (private) company, one that probably made over $100m in profit in 2011 -- though its profit potential may be an order of magnitude higher. It is a company like any other, with motives. As with other companies, we -- as consumers -- have leverage.

But far from suggesting a boycott, let's start with the basics.

#International Law

I appreciate Twitter's appeal to the rule of law. Let me make my own.

We have an international body of law that protects the rights of people, and sets forth the obligations of governments, businesses, and the everyday person. Amnesty International and other human rights organizations spend an exceptional proportion of their resources monitoring compliance with the law, and calling out those who violate human rights law. Not just governments, but businesses as well, from Shell and Dow Chemical, to cell phone manufacturers, mortgage banks, and private security firms.

Allow me to offer a word of advice to Twitter: Laws often clash. In the U.S., there were laws on the books in the southern states that were ruled unconstitutional long before they were finally scrapped. And there are surely domestic laws in countries that will be cited by governments or security elements as a basis for denying speech via Twitter that will clash with international human rights law. They will be illegal domestic 'laws' in contravention of established international human rights laws. They will be unjust laws.

What will Twitter do?

At some point, Twitter will be pressured by governments to change its terms of service so the work around for access to blocked tweets becomes a use violation...Twitter does in fact know where you are tweeting from, and can deny your ability to change your location to circumvent information blackouts.

At some point, user information and location will be demanded by a repressive regime with a cheap, and by international standards, meaningless veneer of a court order. They will demand it, and will appeal to domestic 'law'.

What is abundantly clear is that human rights monitors and advocates -- for the immense power Twitter and other digital networking tools have given them -- have an entirely new domain to monitor. As with other sectors, business decisions in the digital world have human rights implications. For the immense value of Twitter, the policy announcement only brings into focus what we've known for some time -- human rights monitors and advocates have a lot more work to do since the digital revolution. Our collective vigilance is needed more than ever, however we chose to communicate.

We will be watching you, Twitter. Take it as a measure of your importance.

Scott Edwards is Director of International Advocacy for Africa and Director of the Science for Human Rights program at Amnesty International USA.

 

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