Twitter’s ‘censorship’ is nothing new – but it is different

Over the weekend thousands of Twitter users boycotted the service in protest at the announcement that the service will begin withholding tweets based on the demands of local governments and law enforcement.

Protesting against censorship is laudable, but it is worth pointing out that most online services already do the same, whether it’s Google’s Orkut; Apple removing apps from its store; or Facebook disabling protest groups.

Evgeny Morozov’s book The Net Delusion provides a good indicative list of examples:

“In the run-up to the Olympic torch relay passing through Hong Kong in 2008, [Facebook] shut down several groups, while many pro-Tibetan activists had their accounts deactivated for “persistent misuse of the site … Twitter has been accused of silencing online tribute to the 2008 Gaza War. Apple has been bashed for blocking Dalai Lama–related iPhone apps from its App Store for China … Google, which owns Orkut, a social network that is surprisingly popular in India, has been accused of being too zealous in removing potentially controversial content that may be interpreted as calling for religious and ethnic violence against both Hindus and Muslims.”

What’s notable about the Twitter announcement is that it suggests that censorship will be local rather than global, and transparent rather than secret. Techdirt have noted this, and Mireille Raad explains the distinction particularly well:

  • “Censorship is not silent and will not go un-noticed like most other censoring systems
  • The official twitter help center article includes the way to bypass it – simply – all you have to do is change your location to another country and overwrite the IP detection.
    Yes, that is all, and it is included in the help center
  • Quantity – can you imagine a govt trying to censor on a tweet by tweet basis a trending topic like Occupy or Egypt or Revolution – the amount of tweets can bring up the fail whale despite the genius twitter architecture , so imagine what is gonna happen to a paper work based system.
  • Speed – twitter, probably one of the fastest updating systems online –  and legislative bodies move at glaringly different speeds – It is impossible for a govt to be able to issue enough approval for a trending topic or anything with enough tweets/interest on.
  • Curiosity kills the cat  and with such an one-click-bypass process, most people will become interested in checking out that “blocked” content. People are willing to sit through endless hours of tech training and use shady services to access blocked content – so this is like doing them a service.”

I’m also reminded of Ethan Zuckerman’s ‘Cute Cats Theory’ of censorship and revolution, as explained by Cory Doctorow:

“When YouTube is taken off your nation’s internet, everyone notices, not just dissidents. So if a state shuts down a site dedicated to exposing official brutality, only the people who care about that sort of thing already are likely to notice.

“But when YouTube goes dark, all the people who want to look at cute cats discover that their favourite site is gone, and they start to ask their neighbours why, and they come to learn that there exists video evidence of official brutality so heinous and awful that the government has shut out all of YouTube in case the people see it.”

What Twitter have announced (and since clarified) perhaps makes this all-or-nothing censorship less likely, but it also adds to the ‘Don’t look at that!’ effect. The very act of censorship, online, can create a signal that is counter-productive. As journalists we should be more attuned to spotting those signals.

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