Not so long ago, Twitter stood out among social media companies for its defense of free speech. Unlike Facebook, which has a habit of blocking content first and asking questions never, Twitter and its chief lawyer Alexander Macgillivray tended to side with users against censorship requests in the US and abroad. But Macgillivray left the company before it went public last year, and sadly its ethical scruples may have gone with him. In recent weeks Twitter has complied with multiple requests from the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority to block certain tweets–including cartoons depicting Mohammed–from Pakistani users.
The requests were made under Twitter’s semi-new “country withheld content” policy, which allows “authorized entit[ies]” to request that tweets or accounts be blocked in one country while remaining visible to all other users. For maximum transparency, the full details of each request are also logged in the Chilling Effects Clearinghouse. When the policy was announced in 2012, even the Electronic Frontier Foundation acknowledged it seemed to be the fairest possible way to regulate an international platform in accordance with each country’s laws. But the EFF included an optimistic caveat that Twitter would only need to comply with takedown requests in the handful of countries where it has offices or employees: the US, Germany, Ireland, Japan, and the UK.
While it’s true that countries where Twitter has no physical presence cannot directly compel it to obey censorship requests, they can certainly block the entire site and deprive it of thousands or even millions of users at once. Pakistan has already done that to Google-owned YouTube, which refused to censor the notorious “Innocence of Muslims” video in 2012. It was apparently to avoid this scenario that Twitter recently complied with a request from Russia (over 5 million users) to block the account of a Ukrainian nationalist political party, and soon after agreed to block tweets and accounts deemed “blasphemous” in Pakistan (about 150,000 users). To make matters worse, says EFF’s Eva Galperin with chagrin, the requests issuing from the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority may not even be in accordance with Pakistan’s own laws. But it seems a prediction that Galperin cited in her analysis of the 2012 policy change has come true: “if you build a tool for state-by-state censorship, states will start to use it.”
Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.