As we just wrote in the PandoTicker, Twitter has announced that they now have the capability to hide tweets from users based on the locality of the user. While deleting tweets has always been possible on a global level, the tweets can now be deleted in one area of the world, and still be visible in the rest of the world. Immediately, this brings up some interesting questions.
What happens during the next revolution?
Let’s throw out a hypothetical situation that isn’t exactly atypical. A country in the Middle East, Qumar (hat tip West Wing) is authoritarian, but allows access to Twitter. The people of this nation have begun to rise up against the Qumari government, and are using Twitter to organize. The Qumari government decides that this organizational tactic is harmful to the structure of the regime, and moves to crack down on tweeting.
Suddenly, the Qumari government issues orders to Twitter, ordering them to censor certain tweets. The tweets, according to Twitter’s new ability, are removed from the Qumari version of Twitter, and the protests lose their ability to organize. The revolution faces a major setback.
How does this affect developers and third-party applications?
Twitter is able to censor tweets, and will theoretically be able to do it on third-party clients as well. This makes sense, as it wouldn’t be a very effective feature if it left that loop hole open. What happens when a third-party client – say, again, in Qumar – masks itself as a client in a neighboring kingdom that is not censoring tweets. The people of Qumar now are viewing the tweets, and the Qumari government then moves to shut down Twitter in the country altogether.
This is bad for Twitter (it loses money), the people (they lose a source of communication), the developer (they lose the trust of the Twitter engineering teams) and the Qumari government (the people then move to less transparent means of communication). Most of all, other regimes will look at Twitter as incapable of censoring to their demands.
Is this a step towards Twitter launching in China?
Earlier this year (or late last year), Twitter co-founder and Square CEO Jack Dorsey travelled to China. While the details of what he discussed were not made public, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist that he was there to talk about more than Square. What is there to talk about in China, regarding Twitter? Well, the launch of Twitter in China.
If Twitter is planning a launch in China, the Chinese government will be keeping a close eye on Twitter’s ability to censor material that the Chinese government deems ‘inappropriate’ or ‘threatening’. Twitter didn’t have that capability yesterday, but it certainly is moving in the right direction as of today. I’m sure Mao would be pleased.
To be clear, this isn’t just a “let’s all gang up on Twitter” post. Instead, I’m trying to point out some of the big flaws in this plan. At the same time, I understand that Twitter is in-between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, they are a business and it makes sense to reach as many people as possible. On the other hand, they are being used as a utility by more and more people and should be treated as such.
With those qualifier being clearly states, I end up agreeing with Chris Dixon: