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For Twitter, Limiting Tweets Beats No Tweets

Earlier this week, Twitter announced that it will begin making certain Tweets inaccessible to users in countries where the content of those Tweets is illegal. In announcing its new policy, Twitter was acknowledging the challenge that all global social media sites face: governments ask tech companies to comply with local content laws and if these companies refuse to comply, they risk being blocked from the country entirely, further limiting information that citizens can access. If the company has employees on the ground, refusal also risks legal charges against employees.  This, of course, raises a well-worn question: are human rights better served when a platform restricts some content in order to remain in a country, or when it resigns itself to a nationwide block of its service?

Reasonable minds will differ on the answer to this question. But it is easy to forget that you need not look as far as China to see how differences in speech laws can complicate things for global user-generated content platforms: France and Germany restrict hate speech in ways that are acceptable under human rights law, and companies cannot simply ignore these legitimate differences in law when operating outside the US.

For those companies that decide that the rights of users in a specific country are better served by allowing some information, even if not all information, to flow, the critical question becomes how these companies comply with local laws. Indeed, the Global Network Initiative (of which Twitter is not a member) has crafted principles and guidelines to help companies sort through these very questions.  Twitter’s newly announced policies seem consistent with these guidelines so far.  

For example, the GNI asks companies to narrowly tailor their responses to government demands that they censor user expression. Rather than deleting a Tweet for the entire world when they receive a government request, Twitter is now limiting the impact of its action to only the local jurisdiction in which the takedown is required. Users in other countries will still be able to view and interact with the Tweet in question. Also, Twitter will only be complying with government requests when the content in question is in fact a violation of local law, and when the request comes through proper legal channels. Finally, we have learned from Twitter that every request will be reviewed, and Twitter will not proactively monitor or delete tweets.  

GNI also asks companies to be transparent when they restrict content so that users know that their governments are limiting expression.  Here, Twitter is making an effort to be transparent about what Tweets have been withheld, and at what government’s request. Twitter is also partnering with Chilling Effects to shed more light on such restrictions. Transparency is vital for empowering citizens to hold their own governments to account.  We’d love to see Twitter follow Google’s example here with a more robust transparency tool that enables advocates to better monitor government actions.  

It is understandable that Twitter’s users may be upset by this week’s announcement: Twitter has so far been a stalwart defender of free expression and users may question whether this new policy represents a fundamental shift in Twitter’s values.  To be clear, users are right to ask whether Twitter will continue to stand up to illegitimate government demands and it is up to Twitter to credibly demonstrate its commitment to free expression and its users.  Tech companies have a responsibility to challenge laws that violate human rights norms, minimize the potential human rights harm that might flow from their business, and to work with civil society and others to change bad laws where they can. But it seems that, faced with real challenges about how to operate in a global legal environment awash with tricky ethical questions, Twitter has adopted a thoughtful, measured policy.  Twitter’s users will have to continue to hold Twitter accountable to its core principles as we see how this policy plays out in practice.