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Why Nobody's Mad at Twitter's International Censorship Move

BY Nick Judd | Friday, January 27 2012

Yesterday, to the howls of many, Twitter announced that is launching country-specific versions of its platform, and with them the ability to selectively censor tweets based on the laws of a given country.

Observers may have noticed, however, that there were some pretty prominent voices not howling at Twitter. At Marketingland, Danny Sullivan — emperor of the Search Engine Land empire — told people "not to worry." ReadWriteWeb notes that it seems pretty easy to get around this censorship — in theory, users should be able to just change their country settings. Earlier this morning, Andy Carvin noted that Facebook, Yahoo and YouTube have all gone through the same situation.

"Difference is," NPR's crowdsourcerer wrote, "Twitter was transparent."

These voices describe an immense pressure Twitter is under abroad without specifically pointing one out.

"Unfortunately, it's necessary," the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Jillian York wrote to me in an email. "If Twitter doesn't comply with orders, they risk being blocked in a given country. And if they have 'boots on the ground,' non-compliance is not an option."

[Update: York writes more in her own words here.]

After I reached out to York, Twitter spokeswoman Jodi Olson also suggested I reach out to her for more comment. All of this seems to indicate that Twitter chose this way to proceed in the hopes that it would serve as a compromise between the company's desire to expand globally and its desire to remain on the same side as the folks at the EFF on issues like user privacy and user rights. This is the same company that, despite getting no money from its users, went to the legal mat for some of them to earn the right to notify them that federal investigators wanted records of their direct messages in conjunction with a Wikileaks investigation. But it's still a company, and as such, its platform has to adhere to the rule of law in the U.S. and anywhere else it has staff, or, well ... Megaupload.

Twitter's move here is not really pre-emptive. Other Internet giants have already implemented a similar policy. Google, remember, already maps every request for content removal or government request for user data that it can.

And Twitter actually is under pressure from foreign governments — just not the ones you'd expect.

Twitter has been a source of embarrassment and enervation for the British judiciary for years, going back to the 2009 Trafigura affair in which a combination of Wikileaks, bloggers, members of Parliament and unafraid Twitter users prised the lid off of what had been an essentially sealed case before the British courts. The case, some may recall, involved the oil commodities firm Trafigura, which had obtained a "superinjunction" in British courts against any mention of an embarrassing report of toxic dumping in the port of Aibidjan in Côte d'Ivoire.

A superinjunction is the mother of all gag orders. It imposes a prior restraint on news organizations' publication of the names of people involved in court actions falling under the order. It even prohibits anyone from reporting that the injunction itself exists. In the Internet age, that restraint extends to every publisher — which means everyone with a Twitter account. At least, it does in theory. Again and again in the past two years, Twitter users have flouted that rule. Last year, footballer Ryan Giggs had a superinjunction that proved useless against the heedlessness of Twitter users.

This spurred a study by the British judiciary on how to proceed. Lord Chief Justice Igor Judge, the sherriff of those parts, said last May that he was confident technology could be brought to heel. At the time, he was quoted in the Guardian as saying:

"Are you really going to say that someone who has a true claim for protection perfectly well made has to be at the mercy of modern technology?" he asked.

"I'm not giving up on the possibility that people who peddle lies about others through using technology may one day be brought under control, maybe through damages, very substantial damages, maybe even injunctions to stop them peddling lies."

But the last dust-up over superinjunctions — the Giggs one — also prompted greater scrutiny of the practice itself. Effective Aug. 1, 2011, the judiciary has begun to collect statistical data on such privacy orders.

You still can't see what's in the court's shadowed hands. But now the judiciary is keeping closer track of how often they are set in motion.

Disclosure was the name of the game for Twitter when all it had to do was not obstruct British justice. As a company based in California, it was beyond the arm of British law — but should still cooperate, and so it did, by announcing it would hand over information on users who violated such privacy orders in the UK. However, its perch beyond the reach of British justice meant it did not have to delete the messages that broke the superinjunction.

But Twitter has expressed an intent to expand internationally. This way, the British Twitter office — as it grows — can remain in compliance with British law — withholding messages as needed — notify users of exactly which messages are being censored, and continue to spread them outside that country. In theory.

While York said she wasn't "thrilled" with this news, she said she thought Twitter was doing the best it could.

"The fact is, as they expand and open offices elsewhere (e.g., the UK), they're going to be held to local laws," she wrote in an email. "And while there's obviously potential for abuse here, it seems that Twitter's goal is to minimize censorship globally while adhering to local laws when necessary. In other words, I highly doubt they'll start censoring tweets in Turkey, but given a court order from the UK, they might."

This post has been updated.