Twitter begins censoring content based upon account and point of origin.

31 January 2012

Last week, the addictively simple social networking site Twitter announced that it would be adding the capability to selectively censor tweets based upon where the viewer appears to be sourcing from. Like most websites, when handed a properly acquired takedown notice they're pretty snappy about making certain things disappear (note that some of the taken down posts are reprinted in the takedown notices) but this is, as they say, a whole 'nother smoke. This change of policy means that if you post something that the government of a different country doesn't like (like this), they can request that Twitter make that post unavailable to all users whose IP addresses appear to be part of Syrian Or Saudi Arabian Or maybe even USian, they're fielding these requests all across the board.

Needless to say, this has a lot of people, from Reporters Without Borders to Telecomix to citizen and professional journalists rather upset. In the past few years Twitter has become the near-realtime news ticker of the entire planet? See a car crash? Post a pic from your smartphone. Write a blog post? Post a link. Recognize someone in a video? Retweet and add the person's name, helpfully wrapped up with a neat little #hashtag. Where once it could take days or weeks for word to get out now it can happen in mere seconds (when Twitter isn't throwing up "Your account isn't authorized to carry out that operation" errors, that is, but I digress), as proven by many and sundry events that took place in 2011 c.e. which a lot of people might never have heard of if they'd waited for news crews to decide whether or not they were going to show up. Twitter's decision to begin a policy of trivial-to-abuse censorship is, many of us agree, a clear threat to Freedom of the Press and might open the floodgates to widespread political censorship.

However, it is very important to note that Twitter's new policy doesn't actually mean that they'll be deleting tweets, only obscuring them based upon where a given user appears to be sourcing from. As you can see in this design document, each and every tweet someone posts actually carries a significant amount of information used by their back-end, among which is a free-form location tag, the language the user's account is configured to default to, whether or not the user has geolocation support turned on, and optionally their GPS coordinates if they post to Twitter from a smartphone with a GPS function. If Twitter determines that your IP address is probably in a country that's demanded that something be censore you will instead see a grey box reading "Tweet withheld" in your timeline. Interestingly (and I sincerely hope that their coders and BOFHes did this deliberately), it's possible to change a single setting in your Twitter profile so that you appear to be coming from a different locale entirely, and thus can see past those grey boxes (but possibly gaining a few new ones depending on what you're catching up on).

Or, you could always use one of the many means of circumventing censorship out there (from someone else's wireless access point to open proxy servers to Tor) to log into Twitter and dodge the withheld_in_countries field. Of course, I'm advocating that you use whatever means are necessary to tap back into the global flow of news that is Twitter.

So, the $50kus question is, why the sudden change of heart? Why, after the Arab Spring, the rise of the Occupy platform, and /#op.*/i has the home office in San Francisco started breaking out the grey badges of shame? Let's follow the money.

In December of 2011 an investment firm owned by a Saudi Arabian prince named Alwaleed bin Talal bought $300 million US dollars worth of Twitter stock, a move which is said to have represented the end result of several months of intense business negotiations. To be a bit more specific, the investment firm bought them on the secondary market, directly from Twitter insiders rather than from Twitter the corporate entity (which had to sign off on the transactions). This in itself isn't terribly unusual but when you take into account everything that happened in the Middle East in the past year, and everything still happening over there it starts to become suspicious. When anyone or anything rolls up and buys $300 mega worth of your company that gives the buyer a certain amount of leverage, a degree of control over what that company does if you will. Like bringing a certain amount of voting power over what Twitter does under the influence of a country not known for freedom of speech or of the press, a country whose ministry of the interior has a security committee that can issue dictates over whether or not something gets filtered. A country whom Reporters Without Borders had once ranked near the bottom of the list insofar as freedom of press is concerned.

The most cynical of us have been waiting for something like this to happen when it was first announced on Twitter in December. So many videos and photographs of some pretty horrible things in Egypt and Syria were disseminated over Twitter last year, it only made sense that someone would try to do something about it. It seems that fire has been returned, and we need to figure out what to do about it. Right now, the only thing I can advise is that we teach everyone and anyone out there how to dodge the filters and keep the information flowing. Entities (corporate and otherwise) don't react like this when blood hasn't been drawn.