Internet companies are like musicians. First, they become famous by forming a personal relationship with their fans built on the perception of mutual trust and loyalty; then, they become rich by betraying that loyalty. Or at least that’s the sense one gets reading the knee-jerk reactions to Twitter’s announcement that they are giving themselves the ability to “reactively withhold content from users in a specific country.” By way of explanation, the blog post notes: “As we continue to grow internationally, we will enter countries that have different ideas about the contours of freedom of expression.” As an example, they bring up France and Germany, which have severe bans on pro-Nazi content. Presumably, they’re also referring to certain slightly more controversial countries with bans on slightly more topical forms of speech.
In some ways, it’s a little reminiscent of when Google went to China and agreed to disallow Chinese users from learning about certain major epochs of recent Chinese history, like that one time that millions of people died for no reason. The notion of censorship on Twitter is particularly frightening, since the microblogging site proved that it could be actually useful for something in the midst of the mid-2009 protests in Iran, a country not exactly known for its wholehearted support of free speech.
Still, it’s worth pointing out that Twitter isn’t removing tweets, exactly – they’re just blocking offending tweets from their country of origin. Which is actually a step above the old method: “Until now,” they note, “the only way we could take account of those countries’ limits was to remove content globally.” So at least now, us fat happy Americans will be able to read tweets from crusading foreigners, even if their fellow countrymen won’t.
The statement indicates that the company is eager to maintain its commitment to clarity, which is nice. But this still feels a little bit like the beginning of a new, less lovable, slightly more morally ambiguous era for Twitter. But hey, let’s give Twitter credit – it’s not like they’re paying untold thousands of human beings a modest pittance to pour their blood and tears and youth into the mass production of aesthetically beautiful designer technology. Yay for record profits! Three cheers for capitalism!
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