2011-01-08 Twitter on censorship: No censorship on Twitter

It was December 14 when Twitter first received the sealed order to turn over information on several of its users. Twitter could simply have provided the information requested, instead of acting, on January 5, to have the order unsealed. The unsealing of the subpoena allowed the Twitter users in question to become aware of the situation, and it allowed them an opportunity to dispute the order--an opportunity they would not otherwise have had.

The question arises as to why Twitter made this decision and the answer may lie in a recent interview, in which Twitter CEO Dick Costolo expresses his distaste for censorship and rights violations:

In general, he hates government mandates to keep things quiet. And he hates that a woman in China was punished for retweeting something. He reiterates Twitter’s desire to connect people with useful information. “We’re going to lash out at things that prevent us from doing that, as aggressively as we can.” The proof is that we’re banned in China. “We’re not going to sacrifice what we’re trying to do to.”

Mr. Costolo is likely referring to Google's recent decision to reenter the Chinese search market despite China's firm stance on content filtering. As Google CFO Patrick Pichette told The Times:

“China has 1.2 billion people. For Google to say, ‘We’re going to live on our mission but not serve 1.2 billion people’ — it just doesn’t work.” (Source)

Questions of integrity arise, of course, but it is an open question whether Google's presence in China would hinder or improve access to information for its users. "As one example, Pichette cites the fact that [without Google] there wouldn’t be a single result for 'Nobel Peace Prize' anywhere on the current search engines in China." (Source)

The battle against censorship tends to go hand in hand with the constant fight to preserve individual privacy and it is clear that neither can be won without the other. If social networking sites do not take steps to ensure individual privacy, users will not have much incentive to tweet, blog or tag themselves in a public photo. It took some time to acknowledge the repercussions of sharing personal information online, but user awareness is increasing, as is evidenced by a recent poll showing that 60% of Facebook users consider leaving the network over concern for their privacy. So perhaps Twitter's recent gesture in the direction of user privacy serves as a model not only for integrity, but for good business, too.

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