Tag Archives: Twitter

The new Twitter censorship policy might not be as bad as it looks

There is lots of buzz on the Internet regarding the recent announcement by Twitter that it would be blocking certain tweets in certain countries, although the same tweets will be available in the countries outside of the jurisdiction of those countries wanting to block that particular content.

In the beginning, as soon as I came across this news my first reaction was, “Whattha…” but then I did some reading on the issue and found myself agreeing to many commentators who, although cautiously, understand Twitter’s point of view and deem the development not as bad as it sounds.

The thing is, we don’t live in a Utopian world where freedom of expression and speech is available unshackled. It is not. While tapping on your keyboard, writing for your blog or for Twitter (or Facebook, or for that matter any publishing platform on the Internet) you may take your right to express yourself for granted, but your freedom ends where another’s discomfort begins, and this discomfort can be anything – political, social, ideological or religious.

In the current scenario the governments can block Twitter completely and this doesn’t work good for anybody. Countries like China can block Twitter for just a single tweet. There are many media companies that remove the content from their servers and it is available nowhere in the world. This is the worst case scenario.

Although it is a cyber platform, it works and operates in the real world. Also, it is not a non-profit entity. Somewhere down the line Twitter needs to earn money and it will be earning money via its presence in various countries, and when it plans to have presence in various countries it needs to comply with local jurisdictions whether one likes it or not.

While trying to comply with the local laws Twitter has very carefully drafted its censorship policy and has made censoring content a bit difficult. Particular tweets, while blocked in a country whose government wants them blocked, will be available to the rest of the world and you will also be notified when those tweets are blocked. At Twitter help Center they say:

Many countries, including the United States, have laws that may apply to Tweets and/or Twitter account content. In our continuing effort to make our services available to users everywhere, if we receive a valid and properly scoped request from an authorized entity, it may be necessary to reactively withhold access to certain content in a particular country from time to time.

We have found that transparency is vital to freedom of expression. Upon receipt of requests to withhold content we will promptly notify affected users, unless we are legally prohibited from doing so, and clearly indicate to viewers when content has been withheld. We have also expanded our partnership with Chilling Effects to include the publication of requests to withhold content in addition to the DMCA notifications that we already transmit.

I think this is a clever thing to do. The governments will have to follow procedures in order to block particular tweets. The same governments will not have an excuse to block entire Twitter at the drop of a hat. Twitter can always say, look, we’re complying with your local laws so you cannot block us.

The good thing is the transparency factor and also a clever way of keeping the content visible in the regions where the local laws are not applicable. Transparency in the sense that the content that is blocked will be marked as blocked content and as mentioned in the above quoted text from Twitter, all the requests to withhold content by particular governments will be listed at the Chilling Effects website.

Since all the Internet companies have to operate in the real world, they have to follow the real jurisdictions. Perhaps one day we will have utopia and the cyber world will be totally different from the real world, but right now everything boils down to the real world, where we all have to operate. Twitter is trying to comply with local laws as well as allowing free flow of information wherever it is possible. So far, it sounds fair.

Should governments get access to Twitter data?

Initially when I had thought of the topic my immediate reply was “no”, but then I thought as an identity, as an entity, what is Twitter and how much independence it should get when it comes to adhering to various regulations? The problem with Twitter is that although it is a US-based company its users come from all over the world and it has become a platform of freedom of speech and expression. Since I’m not an expert on IT laws and also international laws, I am a bit confused here. When we post on Twitter, are be governed by US laws (because Twitter, I think, operates under US laws) or our individual laws are applicable? For instance, if I’m using Twitter from India, is it Indian laws I abide by or US laws? Take for instance a car; even if it is manufactured in the US, if it has been sold in India and the person is driving it around on Indian roads, he or she has to abide by the Indian traffic rules.

In a recent judgment Twitter has been ordered to turn over data on WikiLeaks supporters by a US district judge. What if some of the backers belong to other countries? Do they become criminals if the US authorities think that they used Twitter to exchange and disseminate “harmful” information? What if I, while living in India, helped WikiLeaks in a manner objectionable to the US law authorities?

Using a real example, what if the Libyan government asked Twitter to share information on people helping the rebels? Would the company comply? What about China? Yes, Google and other companies comply with local laws but what if they reveal the identity of some person and based on that revelation the person is executed by an authoritarian regime? As far as we know, the US begins to cry esoteric expressions like freedom of speech and privacy when it comes to other countries but when it comes to its own land all of a sudden it needs information even when that information is deemed private and confidential.

But then, is Twitter confidentially supreme even when it is being used by murderers, rapists and terrorists? Recently the British government asked Twitter and Facebook to help identify people who got involved in the riots. I don’t know whether Twitter and Facebook handed over the information or not, but logically, it should. Where do we draw the line then? Any country can say that they need information on criminals whether those Twitter users are criminals or not. What about political activists? Many activists prefer to remain anonymous to avoid persecution. There are many politically and socially active individuals on Twitter who are quite vocal and continuously talk against the government and at the same time have good jobs. If their identities are revealed they will not only be targeted by the authorities, they will also lose their jobs and even their careers. Anonymity, especially on the Internet, engenders unparalleled empowerment. You cannot directly confront people you oppose but you can surely spread your opinion unrestrained.

This is a debatable issue and as more and more such platforms evolve, such socio-legal issues will rise again and again. There is a difference between criminals (in the category of murderers, rapists, child abusers, psychopaths and religious fanatics) and political dissenters. There has to be an international consensus on how to deal with such people. Unless there is an international consensus, any government can force Twitter and other social networking platforms to reveal the identity of their users putting them in great peril. What do you think?

Should there be a holiday on Gandhi Jayanti?

This was a valid, and a little less schismatic this time, question raised by Shashi Tharoor (again, on Twitter). Personally, I have no problem with national holidays and if I’m not wrong we just have 3 national holidays. Before we can answer whether we should have a holiday on the birthday of a person who worshipped work, we have to decide why in the first place we take a holiday on this day?

Ideally, this type of holiday should be taken so that we can sit aside for a day and think about the great soul. People should get together, whether online and offline, and talk about Mahatma Gandhi: his life, his philosophy, how he supposedly got us independence, his non-violent (and controversial) ways, and what he thought about the world in general (and about sex, according to this Tweet from Pritish Nandy). There should be neighborhood gatherings (do we still have those?) of kids and adults and hold discussions on Mahatma Gandhi. Do we do that? Hardly.

For instance, this time it was nothing but an extended weekend. People pack up their bags and go to visit places they can visit and come back by late Sunday evening. Or they simply laze around. You hear or read things about Gandhi only while casually browsing through TV news channels, Twitter streams and blogs. Music and entertainment channels start broadcasting Valentines-related or festival-related programs days in advance (so that people don’t absentmindedly forget about spending their money on greeting cards, expensive gifts and themed dinners). They don’t even show themed songs the way they, occasionally, do on Republic and Independence Days. So it just becomes a holiday. So should we have it?

This holiday should be scrapped. But instead of working or studying, people should do some brainstorming on how we can improve our country? When was the last time you constructively talked about making your country a better place to live? We all criticize and crib as regularly as we shit, but how many times we actually think about solutions and how to implement them? If the guys at BlogActionDay can organize blog action days year after year and motivate bloggers all over the world to write on relevant topics, why cannot we organize such days on Gandhi Jayanti? Senior managers and school/college principals should organize cleanliness drives where they visit neighboring places and clean them up. You may think what can be achieved by doing such things once a year? Not much. But do you think our country is so hopeless that if hundreds of thousands of people participate in this annual event, not even a few hundred will carry on the work for a few more days and in the process motivate more people?

Twitter, Shashi Tharoor and Cattle Class

It all started with this innocuous exchange between Kanchan Gupta, a prominent columnist who writes for the Pioneer, and Shashi Tharoor, Minister of State for External Affairs, an avid Twitter user and the current media blue-eyed boy (my wife’s expression).

tharoor-gupta-twitter

One tweet and from a media darling he has become a pariah, and this was bound to happen, and I wonder why he, or anybody else for that matter, never saw it coming (I’ll explain later). And the most appalling aspect of all this is, "cattle class" wasn’t even his expression, he was simply replying to Kanchan Gupta’s tweet: it was a simple exchange between two individuals that was blown out of proportion by the media as well as politicians. Go through various online links of newspapers and TV channels and nobody mentions even once that the expression did not originate from him.

Of course this could be because of the fact that unless you use some extra Twitter tools or a JavaScript addon you cannot see the tweet he had replied to. But before jumping the gun, at least the media dudes should have checked the entire chain of the tweet exchange.

About cattle class, 60 years of Congress governance has made sure that a majority of Indian citizens live like cattle. May be the expression touches a sore spot. May be the party has a ghost of a conscience by a freak chance.

Anyway, back to why they should have seen it coming. The days of individual politicians have gone. Most political parties in India thrive on the halos created around particular families and individuals, and all other members have to operate from under their shadow. Just look what happened to Jaswant Singh. After writing the book, he became an individual and moved outside of the shadow.

Similarly, the Congress party workers have to work within the shadow boundary of the Gandhi family. By using Twitter, by articulating his thoughts, by directly interacting with the common folks Tharoor is building his own mass base — people have begun to adore him and perhaps in the process, have begun to neglect the other blue-eyed boy, Rahul G. Now how can this be tolerated in a party where sycophancy is religion and the 3 Gandhis at the helm are no less than gods?

So in the guise of austerity and an abstract tweet, he is being targeted by his own party men and women, and soon they will be competing with each other just to show how loyal they are to the real blue-eyed trinity.

According to his latest tweets Shashi Tharoor has apologized, and in a country where words and rhetoric matter more than reality, he has done the right thing. Ours is a strange country. Speak truth and people will lunge at your throat; feed them with pleasant lies and they will fall on your feet.