Silence of the tweets

By Luke Wilusz

Twitter made an announcement in the past couple of weeks that it would begin to cooperate with world governments and censor certain tweets in countries where they have been deemed illegal. Google has also implemented similar country-specific censoring measures in its Blogger service. These actions have sparked outrage from bloggers, activists and free speech advocates around the globe.

However, while I could never condone censorship of any kind, and I think free, unrestricted expression ought to be respected as a basic human right in every nation, I can understand the reasoning behind these actions. Twitter executives Jack Dorsey and Dick Costolo were quick to defend the move in interviews with several media outlets.

They insist that Twitter will always explain why a specific tweet is taken down and that those messages will still be visible to the rest of the world—just not in countries that have found them to be in violation of local laws. The general idea is that censoring specific tweets prevents the entire site from being blocked in any given country. In a sense, it’s the lesser of two evils.

If I had to choose between selective censorship and the blacklisting of an entire network, I would probably have made the same choice. However, the ideal solution will always be no censorship at all. It’s difficult to imagine this decision having anything but a negative effect on liberation movements worldwide, especially when one considers how instrumental social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook were to last year’s Arab Spring uprisings.

If these censorship measures were in place last year, the governments of Egypt and Tunisia may have been able to stifle and silence the resistance movements— both of which ended up overthrowing their oppressive regimes—before they could gain the momentum and support they needed to succeed.

This situation reminds me of Google’s decision to filter its search results in cooperation with the Chinese government’s Internet censorship practices: It gives a growing Internet company access to large, profitable markets worldwide. It’s a smart, sound business move any way you slice it, and it allows good old-fashioned American capitalism to flourish in every corner of the globe. Too bad it compromises the basic principles of free expression and democracy in the process.