Twitter has announced in a blog post a glorious new ability: “the ability to reactively withhold content from users in a specific country — while keeping it available in the rest of the world.” At last!
There are two ways of looking at this new “ability,” one optimistic and one pessimistic. One is that Twitter is now more able to effectively tailor itself to the needs of certain countries. The other is that Twitter is now more able to effectively tailor itself to the needs of certain countries.
In a way, it’s a good solution: countries where it is forbidden to speak ill of God or well of Hitler will now be able to extend those restrictions to Twitter. But, on the other hand, countries where it is forbidden to speak ill of God or well of Hitler will now be able to extend those restrictions to Twitter.
Of course, they were always able to, in a way: a tweet that fell afoul of restrictions could be removed globally. Not an ideal solution, as people in countries without official limits on free speech would be unable to hear what was being said. Now the censorship will be limited to the bounds of the country that requests it.
The problem is that in a way, that is worse. Twitter, and the net in general, are by nature a global communication platform. National conflicts on the internet (for example, an album being released in October in the UK and December in the US) are strange and illogical. Before this announcement, Twitter was a global platform on which something was either said or not said, on a global scale. Now, Twitter’s new power to enforce censorship depending on your country both legitimizes the blocks and concedes international territory specifically to countries that “have different ideas about the contours of freedom of expression.” This diplomatic casting of the restriction of speech, from a company that is built around the idea of free communication, is troubling.
Unfortunately, it’s a logical step for a platform that wants to be accepted worldwide. Some companies have to make serious concessions in the way they do business in order to satisfy the whims of local business magnates, secret police, and religious leaders. Twitter has just made one of these concessions; perhaps they think of themselves as the willow, bending that it might not break. As the new method has not been applied yet, it is difficult to say exactly how complete, or perhaps how merely symbolic, the block will be.
A meta-national community like Twitter must both transcend and respect its constituent parts, and that requires some tough decisions. Let’s hope they made this decision with the promise of better global communication in mind.