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The microblogging service Twitter recently announced that it is open to censoring tweets in specific countries based on a government’s request. As a result, the tool that opposition groups the world over use to organize protests could become less effective. Twitter justified the move by saying that countries have “different ideas about the contours of freedom of expression,” and to expand globally as an American company Twitter needs to observe foreign laws. So what does Twitter’s new policy entail for Russian users?
Twitter announced that upon an authorized entity’s request, tweets or accounts will be blocked if the company considers the request to be justified. But the tweet or account would be blocked only in the country where the request originated. To make this process transparent, Twitter will be clearly marking which tweets or accounts are blocked. The company is also working with Chillingeffects.org, a Web site aimed at protecting online freedom of speech and intellectual property rights, to publicize and shame those asking for censorship.
In the past, few tweets have been blocked. According to Chillingeffects.org, content was mostly removed from Twitter due to copyright violations. Censorship was limited since Twitter only had offices in the United States, where free speech is extensively protected by law. But as Twitter expands to sell advertising and PR services in other countries, it will have to adhere to more restrictive local laws.
Although Twitter will be censoring more, the company claims that its new policy will actually reduce worldwide censorship. Because Twitter currently limits so little, some countries constantly or intermittently prohibit access to the resource. Given additional restrictions, governments inclined toward censorship will now permit access so more people will use Twitter, the company’s reasoning goes. A government may have Twitter block a tweet or account, but re-tweets of blocked tweets and @ responses will be unaffected.
Russia has seen a mixed reaction to these policy changes. After articles with alarmist headlines like “Twitter implements censorship” and “Twitter will censor” appeared in RBK and Gazeta.ru, the dust settled and pundits began defending Twitter’s policy. Aleksandr Plushev, a radio talk show host on Echo of Moscow radio, said: “The policy is very clever. I have never seen a better model that accounts for autocrats’ demands and protects free speech.” In his blog, Anton Nossik, the media director of SUP Media and an avid Twitter user, argued that Russian Twitter users have nothing to fear. And on Twitter itself, there were few tweets of annoyance.
But Russians do have a reason to be wary. If the government convinces Twitter to block a single Tweet, not much damage will be done. Tweets are produced and spread so quickly that the effectiveness of this kind of censorship is dubious, especially when there are ways to work around the ban. However, if Twitter blocks an entire account in a country, something the company said is possible, the effect on the user’s freedom of speech would be magnified. Moreover, local laws create specific issues for Russians to worry about: legislation against extremism has been used to censor dissidents before.
Human rights organizations are also worried. Amnesty International thinks it is ironic that Twitter now actively contributes to limiting freedom of expression and the right to information – the exact human rights that Twitter based is business model on. In an open letter to Twitter’s executive chairman, Reporters Without Borders also warned that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees freedom of expression in all countries.
A Twitter user is at risk of being censored only if Twitter has offices in the user’s country. In Russia, an authorized entity like a judge or the Justice Department, can request that a tweet or account be censored. But if Twitter considers the request to be unjustified, the company will ignore it. Because Twitter has no personnel located in Moscow, it cannot not be pressured to obey based on legal action or the loss of a subsidiary’s revenues. Twitter has offices in the UK, Ireland, Japan, and Germany – countries that have little censorship. Yet the company announced its new policy in order to be able to expand its business freely: will there be a Twitter office in Russia soon?
Nossik is doubtful: “I think that the reason for Twitter to be opening offices in various locations is that it knows how to make money in those locations. And this is what puts Russia far behind other markets,” he said. Even considering Twitter’s popularity (Russia is one of Twitter’s 20 largest potential markets), Nossik believes it will be a while before there is a Twitter office in Russia. “Money is not about tweets and re-tweets and hash-tags. Money is about money. Money is about commerce: advertising or promotions or any paid services offered by Twitter. We don’t see anything like that in the Russian segment of Twitter. So spreading into Russia will not be of any priority. First it will be established in Europe, then China and India and the Far East. Russia will be in the next phase.”
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