Well, it's happening. Twitter, the hangout for people who find tumblr too much work, disclosed that it's blocking users in Germany from viewing the tweets of Besseres Hannover, a group of neo-Nazi skinhead psychos. This is the first time the microblogging behemoth has ever censored an account, and you can be sure there will be activists uproars about the death of free speech. The thing is, Twitter is a private, for-profit company, and can therefore do whatever the hell it wants. Frankly, if I were Twitter, I'd be doing a whole lot more censoring — from every idiot who starts a jailbait account to half the butthole surfers I went to high school with. No Tweets For You!
Fittingly, Twitter general counsel Alex Macgillivray delivered the info about its first censorship late yesterday evening via a tweet that went something like this: "h8 group nada mas in das boots, b cool a'ght lylas i had soup for lunch here's a pic of my shoes" JKjk, he was a total professional about it: "We announced the ability to withhold content back in Jan. We're using it now for the first time re: a group deemed illegal in Germany." Not such a big deal, right? I mean, this group is obviously a bunch of lunatic dick heads and they needed to be shut the fuck down.
Well, yes and no. There's a lot is at stake for Twitter — particularly the protection of its more vulnerable users, including activists in countries where the service has played a large role in amplifying voices and aiding revolution. The fact that Twitter will erase tweets in certain countries if it's deemed illegal by that country's government is definitely a dicey situation. While it's a no brainer to censor the Nazi drivel, it woud've been a much more difficult decision if the request had come from the Egyptian government last spring.
This is obviously a much more complicated issue than Twitter flipping its users the bird and deleting accounts and tweets at will. It's clear that protecting their users while at the same time staying relevant and making money is a hot topic at Twitter HQ. Speaking with the New York Times last month, Macgillivray spoke of the importance of user trust.
"We value the reputation we have for defending and respecting the user's voice," Mr. Macgillivray said in an interview here at Twitter headquarters. "We think it's important to our company and the way users think about whether to use Twitter, as compared to other services."
When Twitter enters into business in countries with much different laws than the United States — for example, China's one to watch— the decision to work within the confines of that sovereignty could test Twitter's loyalty to its users. When pushed by governments to fall in line or get out, how much will they be able to push back, especially if they have employees in country? While Twitter has proven itself to be fairy tough when it comes to protecting its users privacy from the U.S. government (challenging the Justice Department on their WikiLeaks manhunt), they have bent before, it's not unprecedented (delaying planned upgrade at the State Department's request in 2009).
For now, the people who need Twitter the most are the ones who live in places where their governments attempt to silent discontent, and that's especially true of many brave female activists. Women like Egypt's Mona Eltahawy, Libya's Danya Bashir, Bahrain's Zeinab and Maryam al-Khawaja, and Tunisia's Lina Ben Mhenni and Tawakkol Karman — all of them crucial in shaping the Arab Spring — might not have been heard, especially if Twitter's loyalties had rested with their governments, and not them.
Here's hoping Twitter will find a way to work with these countries to give citizens the ability to broadcast their message — they just need to be careful that the price isn't too great. Of course, if things do go to pot, the revolution has already been televised, and it's looking more and more like silence isn't an option — thank goodness for hackers.