The Good, the Bad, and the Fuzzy of Twitter's New Censorship Rules

Twitter chief executive Dick Costolo, stern-faced and blank-eyed, explained his company's new censorship capabilities defensively on Monday night.

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Twitter chief executive Dick Costolo, stern-faced and blank-eyed, explained his company's new censorship capabilities defensively on Monday night. When asked Twitter's stance on free speech, its plans for international expansion and the criticism the company's faced for bending to governmental pressure, Costolo implored the audience -- and ostensibly Twitter's users -- not to speculate about whether or not the new technology that can withhold tweets in certain parts of the world means that tweets would continue to flow freely around the world. It has nothing to do with wanting to move into China or anything like that, Costolo explained. It's just what some companies have to do to grow.

"We could go into hypothetical after hypothetical after hypothetical," Costolo said. "Our perspective is that the most honest transparent and forward-looking way for a company to deal with the myriad of complex issues around the world that you experience when you have to operate in these countries." Based on the company's recent history dealing with government orders, though, the hypothetical is exactly what worries free speech advocates.

The Good

Twitter's new censorship wall is full of holes. As we explained last week, the new tweet-blocking technology doesn't delete tweets; it simply withholds them in parts of the world where relevant laws would make it illegal to publish tweets. If a tweet is blocked, simply change your country to one with less stringent privacy laws. If you think that this be Twitter's might be a way of getting to the Great Firewall of China, think again. Twitter does not operate in China and based on Costolo's comments on Monday, they don't plan on operating there any time soon: "I don't think the current environment in China is one in which we thing we could operate." Costolo added."

Twitter also says they did not build this technology with the expressed intention of withholding content, but rather to provide a buffer between governments and users. "We do not proactively monitor or filter any content," Twitter representative Matt Graves told The Atlantic Wire last week. "This is a reactive policy: that is, we will withhold specific content only when required to so in response to a valid and applicable legal request."

The Bad

Cooperating with governments inevitably means that people could go to jail for tweeting. One such (somewhat problematic) example of this is the United Kingdom, where it's illegal for the media to name people with court-ordered super-injunctions. A super-injunction is a particular kind of gag order issued by a judge often in order to protect public figures from coverage of potentially sensitive issues. When a tweeter identified professional footballer Ryan Giggs as having obtained a super-injunction to hide his affair with a reality TV star, the courts attempted to force Twitter into revealing the identities of the users who broke the super-injunction and punish them for speaking up. This did not go over well on Twitter, but eventually the company caved in to government pressure by releasing the names. "Are you really going to say that someone who has a true claim for protection perfectly well made has to be at the mercy of modern technology?" Lord Judge, the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wale asked The Guardian. "I'm not giving up on the possibility that people who peddle lies about others through using technology may one day be brought under control…"

"The mercy of modern technology" is a really funny phrase. It will take a while to sort out the legal details, but James Webley, who sent the original tweet, leaking news of Giggs' affair could face jail time. While this doesn't sound like a good thing for anybody, the truth is that Twitter's new tweet withholding policy could prevent cases like this -- ones that scare old British judges wearing powdered wigs -- would be brought under control before they bubbled up to the high courts. That's a very speculative hypothetical, however. But since we're already speculating, imagine what would've happened in Iran or Egypt had Twitter decided to cave in to government pressure.

The Fuzzy

As Costolo said, it's very unclear what will happen in the future that will force Twitter's hand and make them censor tweets. For now, nothing has really changed. "There’s been no change in our stance or attitude or policy with respect to content on Twitter," said Costolo on Monday. "When we receive one [a cease and desist order] we want to leave the content up for as many people as possible while adhering to the local law." Until then, keep tweeting.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.