Conflicted on: per country censorship, responsibility, and the cost of doing business

January 28th, 2012

Regarding Twitter’s recent changes:

Starting today, we give ourselves the ability to reactively withhold content from users in a specific country — while keeping it available in the rest of the world. We have also built in a way to communicate transparently to users when content is withheld, and why.

I mostly agree with Simon’s excellent post on his experience of adding this feature Flickr, and I18N in the broader Yahoo context, summarized as:

(1) Online companies have (and should have) little to no power to alter a country’s laws. (2) Online companies have an obligation to follow the law in places where they do business. (3) The revolution will not be Twitter-fied (4) The internet transcends borders; most laws do not. (5) Assumptions of malice are generally misguided, moreso in the face of opposing evidence

I’m also deeply appreciative that he took the time to write it.

I also mostly agree with Blaine’s related assertion

Twitter is a corporation, not a radical or even progressive platform. The internet, though, is.

There’s a topic I’m deeply conflicted about in there, and I’m not even sure what it is.

I’m not remotely conflicted that the Internet’s unthinking freak out is counter productive and poorly informed. (probably due to so much of what passes for dialogue these days being conducted in 140 characters and proxy gossip rags)

This however:

Anyone who followed or engaged with the recent SOPA/PIPA protest hopefully left it with an appreciation for the dangers inherent in allowing companies to craft legislation

Creates for me a worrying abrogation of our rights as moral individuals working within a corporate system to improve the world.

When Google went into China refusing to adapt, and later pulled out because they refused to adapt to the limits of that market’s law was that them being the MPAA forcing their corporate vision on unsuspecting foreign citizens or was that them taking a principled stand for a better world? (and that they pulled out also because they got hacked, and because Baidu was probably kicking their ass somewhat undermines my point, but there are so few examples to point to at scale we’ll take this one. If you’ve got a better one, love to hear about it)

I was never comfortable with the line we walked at Flickr, it felt like we accepted too many restrictions as “the price of doing business”, but in a resource constrained tiny organization inside a much larger corporate behemoth there is a moral fig leaf to hide behind. Twitter has significantly less to hide behind. It’s a line that Etsy walks as well. We don’t, for example, allow you to sell vintage Nazi paraphernalia in any jurisdiction.

Additionally Simon, and Heather, and others who actively shaped our international policy were:

  1. Transparent with our community that we were doing it
  2. Transparent when content was being hidden and why (for country restrictions or DMCA or whatnot).[1]

If you’re going to do per country filtering, I can’t think of two better principles to put in place, and these are the principles that Twitter mentioned in their blog post.

Fundamentally this is one of the tensions in centralizing all your communications into a small handful of privately held, globally scaled, profit motivated corporations, and then centralizing people into semi-archaic, geo-political niche regulated markets we like to call countries.

(In the misattributed, misquoted, and then deeply munged words of Mark Twain, “I’m sorry, if I was clearer on what I believed, I would have written less.”)

  1. (aka the fuzzies, or the blacked out images, transparency around this wasn’t perfect, and didn’t arrive all at once. Iteration was needed.)
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2 responses to “Conflicted on: per country censorship, responsibility, and the cost of doing business”

  1. “…a worrying abrogation of our rights as moral individuals working within a corporate system to improve the world.”

    Yes, this. This is what almost made me miss my stop on the train home last night because I was engrossed in writing notrs-to-self.

    My post yesterday was really intended as a quick, non-rhetorical answer to the knee-jerk “what were they thinking?!” reactions.

    I do want to follow it up, though (probably tomorrow) with an exploration both of what “censorship” really means in different contexts, and very specifically the question I think you might actually grappling with, which is, approximately:

    How do we find a balance between fostering a more open and fair world without crossing too far into the dangerous territory of cultural imperialism?

  2. Mike P says:

    I think you’re absolutely right about the need for transparency. I’m glad you added the note about transparency around fuzzies – I think being more forthright and explicit about stuff like that would have gone a long way to stymying help forum. (of course, who knows what other side effects there would have been)

    It’s a very tight rope to walk, and I agree that it’s not the websites’ job to try to change laws; rather draw attention to them by pointing out when the law is cause for poor online experience.