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Place the word ‘Censorship’ into a tweet, blog, article or social media post and it will instantly raise hackles. Good. Free speech should be a priority on the minds of everyone, and there are plenty of examples: laws and countries which limit freedom of expression, to focus on. Social Media activists have become adept at creating noise and combinations of cyber with on-the-ground actions resulting in actual change in government policy – or a least causing a re-think. The recent SOPA/PIPA disputes being a prime example.

In this case, the proposed Saturday January 28th blackout of Twitter misses the mark entirely. While many would enjoy a day away from formatting 140 characters, the hype around Twitter’s ‘Country Blocking’ policy, leading to a call for users to abandon the service for a day, is misguided. Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and news organizations have all attempted to deal with the issue of censorship in certain countries – China being a long term target, although Belarus, Thailand, Iran, Gulf States come to mind recently – yet none of those companies have tried a nuanced approach which weighs heavily in favour of users, yet respecting laws.

and as per the blog photo – it does not matter what blocks communication. Cats are very effective.

Twitter Policy (Full post)

As we continue to grow internationally, we will enter countries that have different ideas about the contours of freedom of expression. Some differ so much from our ideas that we will not be able to exist there. Others are similar but, for historical or cultural reasons, restrict certain types of content, such as France or Germany, which ban pro-Nazi content.

Until now, the only way we could take account of those countries’ limits was to remove content globally. Starting today, we give ourselves the ability to reactively withhold content from users in a specific country — while keeping it available in the rest of the world. We have also built in a way to communicate transparently to users when content is withheld, and why.

This post by Zeynep Tufekci is one of the better analyses: Technosociology

In my opinion, with this policy, Twitter is fighting to protect free speech on Twitter as best it possibly can. (It also fits with its business model so I am not going to argue they are uniquely angelic, but Twitter does have a good track record. Twitter was the only company which first fought the US government to protect user information in the Wikileaks cas,e and then informed the users when it lost the fight. In fact, Twitter’s transparency is the only reason we even know of this; other companies, it appears, silently caved and complied.)

Twitter’s latest policy is purposefully designed to allow Twitter to exist as a platform as broadly as possible while making it as hard as possible for governments to censor content, either tweet by tweet or more, all the while giving free-speech advocates a lot of tools to fight censorship.

Hard to argue – in fact this is a case where a social media company realizes the best way forward for all, is to allow the service to work in restrictive environments. Will tweets be blacked out? Sure. Will some governments block the service? Yes – but Twitter, unlike Google, which adopted an all or nothing approach in 2010, or Yahoo – which complied completely, have largely failed to gain ground either to advance an open internet in restrictive environments, freedom of speech, or even their own business, while the demand from activists living within suppressive regimes for a worldwide voice is ever increasing.

History  is telling. The Google, Yahoo, Facebook debacles trying to gain a foothold in the world’s largest and fastest growing online community resulted in not only those companies losing potential user revenue, but fostered a growing copycat model (Huffington Post – China’s Social Media). Twitter’s policy might not be what free speech advocates view as ideal, but at least it provides a bridge across the digital divide.

Instead of a Twitter user blackout, how about ‘adopting’ an activist? If you are reading this post you are likely active on social media, have an online network, and (I hope) are a critical thinker. Choose a person or an organization that that you feel deserves attention – one suppressed by internal or external forces beyond their control. They could be 1000 miles away, or in your neighbourhood.

Social media is fun, yes. Fantastic platforms to connect, share: reinforce and make new friends. Those same platforms speak truth to power.

Video – Clay Shirkey

On Saturday January 28th, don’t blackout Twitter. Promote a cause.

Your comments, suggestions and questions are welcome



  1. January 27, 2012 at 11:56 PM

    Another element is that Twitter has provided a pretty simple workaround to the regionalized censorship. I haven’t seen that reported on too much.

    I think I’ll adopt your approach, though, Mat.

  2. January 27, 2012 at 11:30 PM

    I’m not sure I agree with Zeynep nor your reading of her analysis, but what I can agree with is the following: by having an explicit censorship policy, Twitter is enabling activists to detect instances where government-led censorship efforts are happening. In doing so, Twitter becomes an even more powerful tool for activists’ mobilization, simply by design: what is censored in country A doesn’t necessarily get censored in country B, and if country B (where the tweet is arguably not censored) has a strong influence on country A, or even a coalition of countries have a strong influence on country A, then we have an easily designed pressure-transmission trajectory. What more do activists want? I’m not in favor of Blackout Twitter and I think it’s stupid too.

    • January 27, 2012 at 11:50 PM

      thank you Raul – if a blackout works for most users, so be it. Would love to see others advocate, mentor and support.

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