Twitter has made changes to its policies and technology, such that it allows the company to showcase different content in different countries, keeping it in the clear with the laws of each country. The company states, in a post titled “The Tweets Must Still Flow” that it hasn’t done anything yet, and intends to be transparent with users:
We haven’t yet used this ability, but if and when we are required to withhold a Tweet in a specific country, we will attempt to let the user know, and we will clearly mark when the content has been withheld. As part of that transparency, we’ve expanded our partnership with Chilling Effects to share this new page, http://chillingeffects.org/twitter, which makes it easier to find notices related to Twitter.
This announcement from Twitter reads like an invitation to censors. On the face of it, this is nothing new – Google does much the same. For example, in India, Google shows a different version of the map on Google Maps in line with the Indian governments policy, and also censors content and search results accordingly. Twitter, until now, had a single global policy and approach, which meant that if you were following certain users and tweets, they would have been accessible to everyone across the world. This meant that if Twitter was in violation of the local laws in a particular country, it could have been sued or blocked, and the company would not have been allowed to conduct business in the country, without risking legal or government intervention.
At the core of this issue is compelling question of whether sites such as Google, Facebook and Twitter are governed by the laws of where their company is registered, where it is hosted, or where its services are delivered. Google India, in the Delhi High Court, made a rather risky argument, stating that their Indian operations are just a sales operation, and a subsidiary, and have little or nothing to do with content and search results provided by the core business owned by Google Inc. In my opinion, this was a very risky argument, specifically because the court can ask for access to these businesses to be blocked, if they aren’t subject to the jurisdiction of India, and ask for their servers to be hosted in India, in order to be governed by Indian law. What Twitter is doing is preempting legal issues in countries by incorporating the ability to surface content in accordance with local laws.
However, this doesn’t quite augur well for the move to keep the web as free from censorship as possible in India. Twitter’s move to selectively showcase content published by its users in accordance with local laws puts pressure on the likes of Facebook and Google to do the same. Depending on which side of the issue you are on, this is good or bad timing: those in favor of censorship, especially the Indian government, can now use this as a case-in-point.
With the Indian governments actions around censoring the web, the court cases in the Trial court and the Delhi High Court, SOPA, PIPA and ACTA, and the move to shift control of the Internet from the United States to the United Nations, this is an incredibly important year for freedom of speech on the Internet.