In 2012, when Twitter announced in a blog post that it was launching a system that would allow the company to take down content on a country-by-country basis—as opposed to taking it down across the entire Twitter network—EFF defended that decision as the least terrible option. After all, when a company refuses to comply with an official government request, the government's response is often to block an entire platform.
We pointed out that companies cannot be compelled to follow court orders from countries where they do not have significant assets or employees. As a result, we could expect that Twitter would comply only with court orders from the United Kingdom, Ireland, Japan, and Germany. We also warned out that "if you build it, they will come," meaning that if you build a system for country-by-country Internet censorship, countries will inevitably try to make use of it. And we called on users to remain vigilant, using resources such as The Chilling Effects Project to keep Twitter honest, specifically citing the need to watch out for Twitter caving to government pressure to censor overtly political speech.
We're sad to announce that Twitter has now caved. In 2012, Tony Wang, general manager at Twitter UK, called Twitter "the free speech wing of the free speech party," a phrase repeated by CEO Dick Costolo. But two years, a massive expansion, and an IPO later, that claim rings hollow, especially to people in Russia and Pakistan.
How the Russian Bear Ate the Twitter Bird
As of two days ago, when Twitter users in Russia try to view the account belonging to "Right Sector" (Pravy Sektor)—the nationalist political party characterized by the Russian government as Neo-Nazi fascists—they are greeted with a message that reads: "@PravyjSektorRus: withheld. This count has been withheld in: Russia. Learn More."
Officials at Twitter have confirmed that the company has withheld the account in response to a Russian court order, which will soon be posted to Chilling Effects. This is not the first time that Twitter has made content unavailable in Russia in response to a court order; its January-June 2013 transparency report showed that the company complied with 76% of a total of 17 content removal requests that period. They further explained:
We received seventeen requests from the Federal Service for Supervision in the Sphere of Telecom, Information Technologies and Mass Communications (Roskomnadzor) regarding content determined to violate Federal Law 139. Thirteen accounts were found to have promoted drug use or suicide.
There are two ways Twitter's actions are disappointing. First, Twitter has no employees or assets in Russia, so it should not have to comply with a Russian court order at all. And the order isn't even about a Russian account—it's a Ukranian one. Worse yet, Pravy Sektor's account is plainly political. If Twitter won't stand up for political speech in a country where independent media is increasingly under attack, what will it stand for?
There can be no doubt that the Russian government is putting tremendous pressure on Twitter as part of its effort to crack down on free expression on the Internet. Russia's blogosphere has given voice to independent newspapers and members of the political opposition. In March, the state telecom regulator Roskomnadzorr blocked access to websites run by two independent newspapers, as well as sites run by political opponents Alexei Navalny and Garry Kasparov, claiming they "contain calls for illegal activity and participation in mass events conducted in violation of the established order." Last week, Maxim Ksenov, deputy head of Roskomnadzor, took to Russian newspaper Izvestia to complain about an unnamed Twitter account that "published monstrous things" and called for the overthrow of the political regime and the destruction of capitalism. Ksenov threatened to block Twitter entirely unless they "listen to us and periodically remove illegal content."
And the threats are only about to get worse. In August, an Orwellian set of laws restricting the Internet and bloggers is expected to go into effect. Bloggers with 3,000 or more page views a day will be treated as media outlets, subject to greater regulation and legal liability. They will be required to reveal their identities, fact-check their content, not disseminate extremist information or information violating privacy of citizens, and to abide by the rules of pre-election silence. Failure to comply will be punished by fines and may result in their websites being blocked within Russia. Social networking sites, blog hosts and other "organizers of disseminating of information on the Internet" may also come under fire, as the bill requires them to store data on popular users' activity online for six months for potential use in police and other official investigations. It is not unreasonable, given Ksenov's complaints, to imagine that Twitter will be the recipient of many more court orders to block accounts this summer—and if they can't stand up to pressure to block one account, how are they going to react to hundreds and possibly thousands of such demands?
And Now Pakistan
Just in case you thought that Twitter's eagerness to betray its most fundamental values was limited to Russia, the company has also begun country-specific censorship in response to court orders it receives from Pakistan, another country where Twitter has no employees or assets. It is also another country with limited press freedom and a history ad hoc of Internet censorship (YouTube has been blocked since 2012, when the platform refused to remove an offending video).
The Chilling Effects database documents five recent requests to Twitter from the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority, each of which asks for the removal of tweets it deemed "blasphemous" or "un-ethical." The offending tweets included several cartoon depictions of the Prophet Mohammed, as well as the images page of "Duke porn star" Belle Knox.
Experts in the country question whether these requests have any legal authority. On their blog, Pakistani advocacy group Bolo Bhi questioned the decision, writing:
The PTA, in accordance with Section 5 of the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority Re-Organization Act 1996 (amended 2005) is a body established to regulate licenses and workings of telecommunication services and systems. The Act does not in any form give PTA the authority to arbitrarily restrict content on the Internet. Section 8 of the Act allows the Federal Government to authorize the PTA to take or implement certain policy decisions; however, content removal, whether by itself or through another, is beyond the ambit of powers of the PTA or of any government authority for that matter.
As disappointing as it is to see Twitter cave in response to pressure from the Russian government, it is even more alarming to see Twitter comply with Pakistani requests based on what Bolo Bhi describes "little in the way of due process."
But Wait, It's Not So Bad!
Supporters of Twitter's position may point out that Twitter is still the least-bad actor in this space. Facebook regularly complies with government demands for censorship, as does Google. But being the least-bad actor is not good enough. By setting a high standard in defense of free expression, Twitter was once the leader in a race to the top. There's no pride in sinking to the bottom along with everyone else.
Supporters of Twitter's position might also argue that the country-by-country censorship is easy to circumvent; all you need to do is change your account's location settings. This is true and it's one of the nice things about the Internet. But the argument misses the point: Censorship is censorship, even if it is weak or easy to get around. No one will ever defend Twitter as the "weak censorship wing of the Free Speech Party." And that includes EFF.