Reporters Without Borders, the very important and influential international organization at the forefront of global free-speech protection movements, sent the following letter to Twitter:
Mr. James Dorsey
795 Folsom St., Suite 600
San Francisco, CA 94107
Paris, 27 January 2012
Dear Mr. Dorsey,
Reporters Without Borders, an organization that defends freedom of information worldwide, would like to share with you its deep concern about yesterday’s announcement on the official Twitter blog of a new policy under which tweets may be censored in some countries, according to each country’s different criteria.
We urge you to reverse this decision, which restricts freedom of expression and runs counter to the movements opposed to censorship that have been linked to the Arab Spring, in which Twitter served as a sounding board. By finally choosing to align itself with the censors, Twitter is depriving cyberdissidents in repressive countries of a crucial tool for information and organization.
We are very disturbed by this decision, which is nothing other than local level censorship carried out in cooperation with local authorities and in accordance with local legislation, which often violates international free speech standards. Twitter’s position that freedom of expression is interpreted differently from country to country is inacceptable. This fundamental principle is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
We call on you to be transparent about the way you propose to carry out this censorship. Posting the removal requests you receive from governments on the Chilling Effects website will not suffice to offset the harm done by denying access to content. Twitter has said that, if it receives “a valid and properly scoped request from an authorized entity,” it may respond by withholding access to certain content in a particular country, while notifying the content’s author.
The way this is defined is too vague and leaves the door open to all kinds of abuse. Are you going to act in response to a court decision? Or, as is the case in China, will just a phone call from a government official or a local police station suffice to justify denying access to content? Are you going to limit yourselves to censoring tweets after they have been posted or, if faced with a flood of official requests, will you establish a system of prior censorship based on subjects or keyword defined by censors?
You also announced that access to the accounts of some Twitter users could be blocked altogether in certain countries. Are you going to block the accounts of Syrian cyberdissidents if the Syrian authorities tell you to do so? Does this mean that Twitter could render the Reporters Without Borders Twitter account (@RSF_RWB) inaccessible in countries where we often denounce repressive practices and freedom of information violations, and where the authorities are ready to do anything to silence us?
Does your new policy mean that references on Twitter to Arab revolutions and demonstrations in Manama will no longer be accessible in Bahrain? Will Vietnamese using your social network from their country no longer be able to tweet about bauxite mining’s harmful impact on the environment? Are you going to block tweets about the demands of Turkey’s Kurdish minority? Will Russian Internet users see their criticisms of the government censored?
The list of debates and issues that could disappear from your network at the local level is long. The fact that these messages would continue to be available to the rest of the world, and to Internet users in the affected countries who know how to use censorship circumvention tools, does not offset the harm done by censoring and blocking information.
Was your decision motivated by the desire to penetrate the Chinese market at all costs? You recently visited China and voiced the hope that Twitter would one day be permitted. You cannot be unaware of the success of Chinese micro-blogging platforms such as Sina Weibo, which are forced to cooperate with the authorities and impose permanent censorship.
While it is obviously regrettable that the Chinese authorities block access to Twitter and Facebook, what would Twitter’s added value be if it also had to purge itself of forbidden content in order to establish itself in China? Is it possible that one day there will be a sanitized Chinese version of Twitter that has been rid of any reference to the Chinese Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo?
This decision runs counter to the tendency to reject censorship demands from governments such as China’s, a trend started by Google and GoDaddy. At the same time, Internet companies are increasingly being held to account about the export of equipment that could be used to reinforce the surveillance and harassment of dissidents.
We praised your Speak2Tweet initiative in February 2011 in Egypt, which enabled dissidents to continue tweeting after the Internet was disconnected, but we are very disappointed by this U-turn now. We urge you to think again about this new policy’s implications both for freedom of expression and your company’s development strategy. The commercial advantages in the Chinese market are not the only criteria to be considered. Twitter’s image in the eyes of its users is also at stake.
We thank you for the attention you give to this request and we look forward to a favourable response.
Olivier Basille Reporters Without Borders director