Twitter Acts On Policy Of “Country-Withheld Content,” Sets Problematic Precedent

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This article was published on the Neon Tommy website in November 2012.
Last week, the New York Times published an article about Twitter blocking users from Germany as a result of German government requests. This was the first time Twitter used its policy to abide by government requests to suppress unwanted political accounts and tweets from the Web.

However, giving corporations the power of censorship can jeopardize political advocates whose only tool to spread awareness is the Internet.

An account called @hannoverticker was identified as pro-Nazi and considered threatening by the German government, whose concern about Nazism is understood and supported. However, the government’s request that Twitter directly intervene opened a myriad of questions surrounding Twitter’s gain of power to control freedom of speech.

Such a “country-withheld content” policy is dangerous because it sets the precedent for corporations to gain censorship power in accordance with governmental policies.

As an attempt to be clear about the measures taken, Twitter posted online the German government’s request to shut the pro-Nazi account. Nonetheless, it is questionable whether the police should have asked the company to shut it down. As shown in the New York Times, Stephen Porada, a writer for the German online magazine Netzwelt, said “anyone with a little knowledge can get around it with a proxy server.”

A limit line must be drawn between what social-networking websites like Twitter can suppress and to what extent they can exercise their power. Twitter has the right to request that users comply with their terms of use, but as Twitter is also an incredibly popular tool for political and social online activism, a problem arises when Twitter attempts to determine what type of content is harmful to the public and what is not.

Because the policy may be used to block content considered threatening or lawless according to the country of origin, authoritarian countries can abuse power to demand removal of unwanted commentary on controversial topics like fighting for women’s rights in Iraq or democracy in Egypt, thus defeating the website’s purpose to share information.

In attempting to act in accordance with the will of other governments, Twitter can end up compromising service quality and infringing on freedom of speech while abiding by potentially censorial government restrictions. And as an added effect, the Internet would lose one of its greatest political tools.