Why Twitter’s hiding tweets by location accomplishes the opposite of censorship: It extends the reach of Twitter and censored tweets

There has been a huge amount of international discussion about Twitter blocking tweets based on the country in which you reside. If you’ve missed it, Twitter has publicly stated that if you make a tweet that your government claims breaks the law in your local country, they can request that Twitter block it. Twitter would then decide if they will fulfil the request. If they do, the tweet would not be visible in your country. The rest of the world would still be able to see the tweet.

Twitter is trying to thread a needle of being gaining entry to non-US countries while continuing to grow. They need to remain profitable through paid access to its firehose, promoted trends, and promoted accounts, all of which are research or marketing features. Alongside these very economic goals they also want to be a many-to-many communication medium for the entire world. It’s a pretty difficult thing to do — meet the requests of western marketers to sell products while providing a way for people to collude in the downfall of dictatorships.

You have to read between the lines a bit in their blog post: “we try to keep content up wherever and whenever we can, and we will be transparent with users when we can’t. The Tweets must continue to flow.” So let’s start a bit of deciphering to detail why I am not calling for a boycott of Twitter…

1. It is better that Twitter is mostly permitted in other countries than blocked entirely. Twitter cannot simply demand that countries let them into their corner of the Internet. Twitter functions because, like all Internet services, it relies on the layers of networking that make up the Internet. China has opted to try to block it, while during the “Arab Spring” it was heavily throttled in Syria. So there are examples of how a government can deem Twitter too much a risk and block it or make it unusable by fiddling with the inner workings of the Internet. As Nancy Messieh put it, “Twitter isn’t censoring you. Your Government is.” Asking Twitter to not delete tweets where they are breaking local law is a little unrealistic. Twitter will just cease to work in these countries if government or other entities muck with the underlying technology. Furthermore, it is better to have a technology with easy workarounds than an entirely unusable one.

2. Twitter has tacitly endorsed workarounds. Individuals have a long history of finding loopholes in online technologies. There’s currently an easy workaround to blocking by location that could easily be removed, but so far has not been. Other workarounds include proxy servers, which is one more complex way of getting around China’s blocking. Right now the workaround is exceedingly simple and known to anybody who cares to search.

Hey, I was just thinking, how easy would it be to make a Twitter bot use the takedown list to find and retweet from one country tweets that were banned in another, thus making the banned posts visible again? The answer is: really freaking easy.

3. Twitter will make all requests (complied and otherwise) public through ChillingEffects, which will amplify the “censored” topic. This point has been apparently lost in the vociferous objections to Twitter’s public policy of removing tweets. Google and others already have the same policy. This effectively turns the spotlight toward the governments or entities that made the request. In fact, it will probably amplify the message behind whatever the tweet was about, because the takedown requests appear to have enough information in them to figure out approximately what the objection was to the content. Remember also that people can view tweets in other countries.

Twitter is also not the only way word gets around online. It is one but not the only technology that can flow across borders, and works well in combination with blogs, news websites, and social network sites. Talk about an easy way for journalists to find their next story – what was the repressive government so concerned about that they tried to block it? Check the takedown request, find the offending tweet, then go interview the sender.

4. Takedown requests are woefully inadequate to keep up with Twitter traffic. Twitter is about what is happening right now. Fifteen minutes ago is old news. Hundreds of millions of tweets are broadcast every day. Twitter knows this when they state that “we are going to be reactive only.” A delay of even an hour basically ensures that someone else will pick up an important tweet and relay it. While this is not a guarantee that a voice will not be silenced, Twitter thrives on echos of its own users tweets, so it seems likely the important messages will get out.

In my last post I detailed how takedown requests (all 4411 of them) have been limited in scope (DMCA only), mainly UK/US, and clustered. In other words they have been made by western interests and involve US law (the digital millennium copyright act). China and Saudi Arabia racked up one request each. So far it has been a western conversation fueled by the same piracy concerns that have been around for years. It’s really nothing new. It remains to be seen when and how Twitter complies with other types of requests.

5. What are the politics of platforms? Do companies have different sets of obligations than other entities towards local space? This is the most important open question, and goes back again to the challenges of making money on marketing features while also providing a way for people to politically mobilize. Twitter was built as a platform rather than a program, meaning it has all the back-end functionality for programmers to easily build apps around the service. Tarlton Gillespie describes platforms as boundary objects, where companies and individuals can have competing visions of what a platform should do. For participants in the Arab Spring, Twitter is a symbol of freedom. For Twitter executives, it’s a difficult to monetize technology that has slowed in growth, and dammit, we need to keep expanding! (always and forever… sigh)

Right now users and Twitter are tenuously aligned. Executives want more people to use the service, while individuals want to be able to use the service in an unrestricted way. Yet, local governments have entirely different demands, as do protesters. So you see this delicate dance of wording and features play out over the last few days between Twitter and the rest of the world.

Platforms have also become part of physical space, which complicates frictions between the global and the local. As Eric Gordon and Adriana De Souza e Sila state in Net Locality, “The concept of the web as a metaphorical city has given way to the reality of the web as part of the city” (p. 9). We participate online in an endless series of short encounters that reference physical space as a kind of contextual linkage that may fade into the background, or revealed. A previous post of mine on the PIRT blog about Google Streetview is one example of problematic revealing. People are mostly objecting to Twitter’s decision because this could block online conversation from those who most need to participate in it. This is a very real and valid concern. But in the blocking, the conversation will be amplified through public takedown notices, and the tweets still visible from other countries.

So in summary… this is not SOPA. SOPA would make entire domains invisible at the packet layer. Twitter has offered governments an olive branch in the form of blocking functionality that works merely at the data layer, leaving open a variety of easy workarounds. Takedown requests are also insufficient to keep up with the speed of tweets. If we could take a few collective deep breaths and see if and when Twitter opts to use this functionality we will have a much better idea of the long-term effects. Making the statement to not protest Twitter requires serious trust, but I would much rather offer a mostly usable technology to people trying to organize than have it entirely blocked.

[ crossposted to andrewrschrock.wordpress.com ]


Andrew Schrock is a Ph.D student at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. His research focuses on mediated creativity and collaboration in online and blended (online/offline) communities, as well as cultural histories of cloud computing. He is currently a research assistant to Anne Balsamo (Director of Emergent Technologies and Culture at the Annenberg Innovation lab), an Innovation lab fellow, and a member of Henry Jenkins’ Civic Paths research group.

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