You may not like its latest redesign, but Twitter deserves praise for how it stands up for its users’ rights. In the face of legal pressure last year, Twitter fought for user privacy. This year, its new challenge will be censorship—and a repeat performance would be welcome.
Last January, as part of a grand jury probe into the Cablegate affair, the Department of Justice obtained a court order that directed Twitter to turn over information about the accounts of activists with ties to WikiLeaks, including private messages. The original order required Twitter to keep secret the fact that it was handing over private information, but the company fought back and won a motion to lift the gag order. While it’s likely that other social networks received the same request, Twitter was the only company to challenge the secret order.
Last week saw a replay of these events when a Boston prosecutor sent a request for information about users allegedly involved in Anonymous operations. The letter asked that Twitter “not disclose the existence of this request to the subscriber as disclosure could impede the ongoing criminal investigation.” The company, however, ignored that plea and promptly informed the targeted user, who in turn posted the request online.
Letting a user know that law enforcement is seeking information about him will no doubt also tip him off that he is being investigated. But doing so also lets the user go to court and challenge the order—a fundamental right. In this case, once the request was made public, the ACLU intervened.
Now Twitter faces a different challenge: censorship. During the London riots last year, the Metropolitan Police considered ordering the social network shut down. That didn’t come to pass, but some are now pushing for more targeted gagging of unsavory tweets.
Last week it was revealed that Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, is leading an effort to have Twitter block pro-Taliban accounts and messages. And also last week, the Israeli law center Shurat HaDin told Twitter that unless Twitter began blocking the accounts of Hezbollah and other groups considered terrorist organizations by the United States, it would sue the company.
It’s understandable why Lieberman and others would want to shut down such poisonous and vile talk. The problem, however, is that once there’s an easy system in place for governments to blacklist specific speakers, it will inevitably be misused. If nothing else, it’s unlikely we’ll all agree on who deserves to be muzzled. Should WikiLeaks be on a Twitter blacklist? Senator Lieberman would certainly think so.
Other Internet intermediaries have been accommodating to such requests from politicians and governments. PayPal, Visa, MasterCard, and Amazon famously heeded Lieberman’s call to block service to WikiLeaks last year. And YouTube has also taken down videos related to terrorism at Lieberman’s request. Let’s hope that this year Twitter stands up for user speech as well as they have for user privacy.