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Tweet, Tweet Justice: Company’s Censorship Policy Probed

twitter logo map 09

logo map 09 (Photo credit: The Next Web)

By Meg Roggensack
Senior Advisor, Business and Human Rights, First

In her 2010 landmark speech on internet freedom, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton laid out her vision for one internet where access to information isn’t defined by geographic boundaries or political regimes. Today, that vision is even more remote, as evidenced by Twitter’s recent announcement that it would comply with host governments that wish to censor messages.

Twitter made clear that it will censor only after legal review, be transparent about its decisions unless precluded by local law, and ensure that messages censored in one country are available in others. These are important steps and align with commitments made by the tech companies that belong to the Global Network Initiative (GNI). This also puts Twitter on the same side as other companies trying to address the human rights impacts of their global ICT operations – as opposed to those who are not even in the conversation.

But is Twitter’ s policy adequate? Does it propel Secretary Clinton’s vision forward? We at Human Rights First think Twitter is on the right path, but can do better – by making clear the principles for evaluating the legitimacy of requests, and by mounting tough challenges to requests that conflict with national and international guarantees of free expression.

As Secretary Clinton observed in her speech, “The internet will be what we make of it…we need to [take affirmative steps to] synchronize our technological progress with our values.” This can only happen if Twitter and other companies in the sector work harder to realize this vision of a single, unified internet. We’re concerned that Twitter’s new policy is likely to encourage more censorship, not less.

How will Twitter’s new policy affect the overall integrity of its global service? Will there be any jurisdiction where the entirety of Twitter’s messages will be available to users, as Secretary Clinton envisioned, or will Twitter’s service be a Swiss cheese of big and small holes, reflecting censorship preferences around the globe?

Twitter has proven in the past that there’s a better way to handle these requests. It successfully challenged a U.S. federal court’s gag order associated with Wikileaks and then informed the targets of the subpoena so that they could challenge the order. In conveying its new policy, Twitter should make clear that it will aggressively challenge these restrictions, based on available national and international rights guarantees. Many authoritarian governments have broad constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression and/or have signed on to international treaties. Twitter should use these guarantees to elaborate and publish its criteria for screening such requests, and should mount constitutional challenges when pressed. This would leave no doubt about Twitter’s commitment to internet freedom.

Twitter was instrumental to the Arab Spring as one of the few platforms that activists could use to organize and disseminate their views. One year later, Twitter’s role in bringing about political reform is even greater. As Human Rights First heard from a prominent Egyptian pro-democracy leader two weeks ago, Twitter has become the platform for activists. It is easy to use, quick, and searchable.

Without the ability to freely view and post tweets, Twitter’s users, including pro-democracy and human rights activists, can’t communicate, organize, and advocate in real time. Even if the rest of us are able to read tweets that repressive governments censor, tweets that are not accessible to the original posters and their networks are deprived of their utility and transformative power.

Twitter should build on the important safeguards it has announced. And Twitter’s dilemma should spark all ICT companies to think carefully about how the choices they make today will affect the internet we use tomorrow.

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