Editorial: As Twitter expands, legal issues abound

  • Updated: February 7, 2012 - 8:41 PM

Policies need to balance commercial interests and free speech.

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The opinions, often expressed in tweets, came fast and furious after Twitter revealed its revised censorship policy late last month.

Social-media users, who had just pushed back against ill-considered antipiracy legislation Congress considered, were quick to criticize Twitter. Stung by the backlash, Twitter pushed back, arguing that its new policy will actually increase transparency -- not censorship. To some degree, that's accurate.

Twitter already removes some content in response to legal requests. Until now, it was done so quietly and completely: Tweets would disappear from the Web on a global basis, with no trace or explanation.

Under the new guidelines, tweets would only be removed in the countries claiming that local laws were violated. Twitter users outside of those nations would still be able to see the tweets. For those in the affected countries, a gray box would appear instead of the original tweet, indicating that it had been withheld.

Notices of censored tweets would appear on the website chillingeffects.org. And there would be a technological work-around, including allowing users to change their country of origin setting.

Ideally, tweets would be deleted only for criminal issues like child pornography or for content issues like copyright violations. But with most of the world's governments repressing the press in some manner, many countries want to limit social media's ability to spur, and organize, social protests.

Twitter has recognized its unique role before. It postponed a scheduled shutdown in 2009 in order to be available during the height of Iran's postelection protests, and it formed a partnership with Google to try to work around the crackdown on social media during the Arab Spring protests in Egypt last year.

But now as Twitter's business ambitions grow along with its usage, it will increasingly face a fundamental decision in some countries: Does it operate more as a news media outlet or a communications company?

Just as we expect multi-national firms to abide by our laws when they operate in the United States, it's reasonable that Twitter would abide by the laws of the countries in which it operates.

At the very least, Twitter deserves praise for being transparent about its new policy. Other Internet platforms have been less open about their responses to similar pressures.

The definition of "operating in a country" is unclear. The Web, by its very nature, is worldwide.

As long as a country doesn't block its service, Twitter doesn't need to have a physical presence in a country in order to operate there. It will be advantageous, however, to set up shop in some countries in order to tap into lucrative local advertising.

"I don't hold that there is no decision to be made," said Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia Law School and the author of "The Master Switch" and "Who Controls the Internet."

"Twitter in our time is a forum for free speech, and you can't sort of walk away from it saying, 'We're just a for-profit company.' When you deal with information, you automatically absorb moral duties that you don't have if you're dealing with neckties."

For this reason, Wu and others, including Eva Galperin, an activist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, urges that Twitter take great caution as it expands.

"I'm not going to suggest that Twitter should break the law," Galperin said. "But given the legal environment, corporations should be very circumspect about what countries they chose to enter, knowing that they will be bound by their laws."

Of course, not setting up operations in more countries could curtail Twitter's aggressive expansion plans.

But an even bigger business threat could come if users perceive they need to find an alternative site that is even more zealous in advocating free speech.

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Readers, what do you think? To offer an opinion considered for publication as a letter to the editor, please fill out this form. Follow us on Twitter @StribOpinion and Facebook at facebook.com/StribOpinion.

 

  • A FREE-SPEECH VIEW

    "This is the difference between news media companies and communications companies. ... If they don't come from traditional free-speech backgrounds and simply regard these wonderful tools as toys, or revenue-generators, I honestly think they don't consider the global (in every sense of the word) free-speech implications of decisions like this."

    JANE KIRTLEY, director of the Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and the Law at the University of Minnesota

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