If — as some have suggested — Twitter is trying to cut down on free speech with its new censorship policies that were announced last week, then it’s not doing a particularly good job.
While the company described the new policies as “the ability to reactively withhold content from users in a specific country — while keeping it available in the rest of the world,” it also offered suggestions for ways users can work around the new policies to share censored tweets. What, exactly, is going on?
A lot of immediate reaction to the announcement centered around the words “withhold content” but perhaps more attention should have been paid to the word “reactively.” As the original blog post was updated to add, “filtering is neither desirable nor realistic.”
Twitter says it churns through a billion tweets every four days on average, so the new policies are a way of responding to legal action. “With this new feature, we are going to be reactive only: that is, we will withhold specific content only when required to do so in response to what we believe to be a valid and applicable legal request,” the company explains. In short, each request will be evaluated before action is taken.
In addition to “withheld” content being replaced with an alert saying “This Tweet from [@Username] has been withheld in [Country]” accompanied by a link to an explanation of the company’s withholding policy, Twitter will make legal requests to the company available to the public via a dedicated page hosted at online privacy watchdog Chilling Effects.
Already, I find the idea that these moves represent greater censorship to be slightly absurd. Not only will “offensive” tweets be kept online in more areas of the world than they were previously, but there’s a great deal more transparency over efforts to have tweets removed than before — two things that seem to represent less censorship than before, not more.
No wonder Twitter CEO Dick Costolo told an audience at the All Things D conference that he feels his company has taken a more “thoughtful and honest approach” to the matter; one that is more “forward-looking,” right?
What’s more interesting to me, ultimately, is that in the aftermath of the initial announcement and backlash, a Twitter representative apparently gave the cheat codes to Talking Points Memo, revealing not just a piece of interesting information about the new policies, but also an apparent loophole for those who don’t want to see their tweets withheld in limbo.
The interesting information is that should a user object to their tweet being withheld for whatever reason, they can challenge the decision and if they manage to get a court to overturn the original request to have content blocked, said content will become available to everyone again.
It’ll be interesting to see how many people feel so strongly about their social media censorship that they’ll go to court to challenge it. It’ll also be interesting to see who the first person is to do so and what the offending tweet turns out to be. Such a lawsuit is inevitable, after all. I’m sensing libel law may be involved, somehow.
The loophole, however? As the unnamed Twitter spokesperson apparently told Talking Points Memo, “The policy is specific to the originating Tweet or account in question,” which means that retweets and tweets quoting a censored tweet would remain untouched. Talking Points Memo believes that @replies are also freed from censorship because of this statement, but I’m not sure if that’s necessarily the case.
This means that if a tweet is pulled, all the user has to do to be able to resurrect the offensive tweet is have someone outside of their country tweet it, and then they can retweet it themselves. It seems surprisingly straightforward, in a convoluted way, but also appears to be a sign that Twitter is more pro-free speech than some may have immediately thought. Otherwise, why publicize this workaround?
Ultimately, that’s what I end up feeling about Twitter’s changes. Discussing censorship policy always seems to be a touchy subject for obvious reasons, especially when that discussion begins with “we’ve now launched the ability to censor in new ways” or something similar.
But Twitter’s changes feel more like a push against censorship and towards transparency, allowing the identities of those who request removal to be made public, while simultaneously providing ways for offensive tweets to remain visible. Provided Twitter keeps to these guidelines, isn’t that better than simply removing tweets entirely without any explanation?
Graeme McMillan is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @Graemem or on Facebook at Facebook/Graeme.McMillan. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.