We’ve debated this a lot at PandoDaily this weekend, but I haven’t been one of those bloggers chasing Twitter with torches and pitchforks over its controversial move to censor Tweets within certain territories when they receive an official take-down notice.
I’ve traveled enough to know that other countries don’t always operate the way we’d like– but that’s the reality of doing business on a global scale. You accept it or you stay a US company. Particularly when you deal in information.
As I wrote when Google pulled out of China, I think an all-or-nothing approach helps no one, and a “let’s-try-to-democratize-the-world” approach is naive.
What’s more, as Twitter has said, the ability to censor Tweets on a country-by-country basis actually allows more Tweets in sensitive areas to be read by the rest of the world that doesn’t have as harsh laws and restrictions.
There’s one more important point to the debate: Twitter never promised to save the world. Twitter’s stated goal was to make its service accessible to anyone in the world. All of its other policies– allowing anonymous user names, operating over basic SMS for free– were all designed to make that simple goal possible. And given the world we live in, this was a necessary step to make that happen.
Twitter communicated all of this poorly. And it almost had this PR mess turned around with a blog post that clearly outlined the move and how Twitter was trying to handle the reality of its business as best as it can:
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. We have also built in a way to communicate transparently to users when content is withheld, and why.
We haven’t yet used this ability, but if and when we are required to withhold a Tweet in a specific country, we will attempt to let the user know, and we will clearly mark when the content has been withheld. As part of that transparency, we’ve expanded our partnership with Chilling Effects to share this new page,http://chillingeffects.org/twitter, which makes it easier to find notices related to Twitter.”
But some of the governments rushing to the company’s defense aren’t helping. First there was news that Thailand has officially championed the policy. It actually gets worse for Twitter.
I just got this email from a friend in China:
The Global Times is a newspaper owned by the same state-owned company that publishes the People’s Daily (sometimes called the mouthpiece of the Communist Party of China). Global Times Chinese edition covers international news with a rather nationalist bent and tabloid style. In 2008 thery launched an English language edition of the paper which does actually cover some “sensitive” news in China, but has an editorial line in its op-eds that almost always supports the Party line.
From the editorial:
“It is impossible to have boundless freedom, even on the Internet and even in countries that make freedom their main selling point.
The announcement of Twitter might have shown that it has already realized the fact and made a choice between being an idealistic political tool as many hope and following pragmatic commercial rules as a company.”
I still don’t disagree with the substance of the op-ed. But now I feel a little uncomfortable with that fact. The Chinese and Thai government aren’t exactly helping Twitter turn the PR mess around by voicing their enthusiastic support. With friends like these…