Senators Question Twitter Censorship Guidelines

Twitter may be going ahead with it's plans to censor content that governments like India and China don't want to see, but that doesn't mean the U.S. Senate has to like it.

Republican Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Democrat Dick (D-Ill.) Durbin recently sent a letter to Twitter CEO, Dick Costolo, with questions about the decision.

"We understand that Twitter has an obligation to comply with legal requests that do not violate human rights," the text of the letter reads. "And we appreciate that you are taking steps to minimize the impact of censorship. However, your announcement leaves important questions unanswered."

Among the answers from Twitter the bipartisan pair are seeking include Twitter's procedures when a foreign government to withhold content, whether the San-Francisco-based company keeps a log of such requests, and who in the company is ultimately responsible for making the decision to censor content.

So far, company representatives have yet to respond to the senators' request, but that isn't stopping bloggers and activists from asking more pointed questions.

"Twitter argues that it is simply obeying local laws," Peter Sainsbury wrote on the RFA Unplugged blog.  "Will Twitter staff in those countries with Sharia law join in the occasional stoning of adulterers because it is the local law?"

Some aren't even bothering to ask at all.

"Essentially, Twitter has bowed to the demands of censorship," Alan Webber of Altimeter wrote the day that Twitter announced its decision to censor foreign content.

In a blog post Jan 27, Twitter announced that "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."

Translation: Twitterers tweeting about say, the Falun Gong, may have their content blocked in China, but the rest of the world would still be able to see it.

According to Twitter, users will also be informed via a dialog box whenever Twitter blocks their content. In an update, the company expounded on its decision, explaining that the company's "granular approach" to withholding content would not include censoring content before it appears on the site, and that each request to censor information would be weighed against the public's right to know.

The company admits there is no 'magic' in the timing of its decision, and that they are seeking to minimize censorship in the least invasive way.

Meanwhile, the senators are urging Twitter to adopt a more comprehensive framework to deal with human rights and possible censorship concerns.

"As you know, we have urged Twitter to join the Global Network Initiative," the senators write, "a voluntary code of conduct for internet and telecommunications companies that requires participating companies to take reasonable measures to protect human rights."

The initiative seeks to coordinate human rights and free speech policies across a multitude of businesses and civil society organizations operating throughout the world.  Participants include Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and many others.

But Twitter has no desire to join the list of Silicon Valley partners.

"We have not had the luxury of time to be able to fully evaluate GNI," Twitter general counsel Alexander MacGillivray wrote the senators in Feb. 2010.  "It is our initial sense that GNI is suited to bigger companies."

Twitter has not been shy about its desire to expand into other corners of the globe.  In an article on popular blog, The Next Web, in Dec. 2011, the company went public with its plans to reach all seven billion people in the world, describing its service as "the world in your pocket," produced via smart phones and apps like Tweet Deck, which the company bought outright.

But as Twitter expands its operations, millions are asking whether their desire to put the world in their pocket should come at the expense of freedom of expression.

This entry was posted in Communications. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.