Twitter made an important announcement this week regarding their ability to filter content across jurisdictions. The ensuing conspiracy theories and hand-wringing in certain corners of the internet were depressingly predictable, and as I tweeted this morning:
If you’re upset by twitter’s per-country filtering announcement, you know much less about doing business online than you think you do.
But posting such a thing without laying out “things you should know about doing business online” is, frankly, smug and irritating. So, here goes.
(1) Online companies have (and should have) little to no power to alter a country’s laws.
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. It’s no more acceptable for Twitter (or Google or Facebook) to dictate their ideals regarding “acceptable speech” to individual nations. That’s the job of the country’s citizens, working with their politicians. If you’re Indian and want more pornography, campaign for it.
(2) Online companies have an obligation to follow the law in places where they do business.
…and boy is that ever a tricky line to walk. From your perspective sitting at your desk in a nice, liberal and unseasonably warm San Francisco, it may seem outrageous that sex toys are illegal in Vietnam or India. And yet, they are. Laws like this render life difficult for any company doing business online, worldwide, because it leaves them with three choices.
- Don’t do business in that country. As in, IP-filter signups - lock out anyone who comes from there. This is not a brilliant strategy for growing an online powerhouse.
- Turn a blind eye. This is fine if you’re a 6-man startup in Santa Clara - hardly anyone’s heard of you. You’re small fry. But for a household name like Twitter, this causes enormous headaches. Executives and staff of web companies have been hassled, refused visas or detained when they try to travel to countries where their service violates the law. As companies get larger they also start to run up against the “feet on the ground” problem where remote-workers or offices affiliated with them can be held responsible for the company’s actions. When this stuff goes horribly wrong it can ruin the lives of people whose only real crime was wanting to help build something cool.
- Go for the “lowest common denominator”. No need to say, this is the worst possible solution. Have Indian users? Then we’ll shut down the Good Vibrations account so we’re compliant with Indian law. German users? Scrub the site of military memorabilia enthusiasts in case one of them has an old Nazi uniform kicking about. And so on.
(3) The revolution will not be Twitter-fied
Yeah, yeah, it already was, in Iran, and Egypt and other places, right? And these new Twitter filters might stop that happening again, right? Wrong.
The truth is that all oppressive regimes worth their weight in Secret Police have measures in place to choke off the internet entirely, or to selectively filter sites. Twitter’s current move has precisely fuck-all to do with national-level unrest because those situations are out of the company’s hands.
When events of that magnitude happen, Twitter is usually one of the first sites to disappear within a country’s borders. This is why we have Tor.
(4) The internet transcends borders; most laws do not.
It is entirely counter-intuitive to state that Twitter’s new filtering capability is a move to defend free speech, but it is. I saw some suggestion that Twitter’s mention of France and Germany’s anti-Nazi laws was a cop-out, an innocuous example used to cover a deeper conspiracy.
The much more boring truth is that France and Germany’s anti-Nazi laws (which don’t just ban explicitly pro-Nazi content, but also actions like the sale of Nazi memorabilia) are one of the most common and most dangerous jurisdictional problems that large web properties come up against. In the most famous example, in 2000, Yahoo lost a case in France over the availability of Nazi memorabilia on its US site to users in France. The cost of continued non-compliance was set at $15000 per day.
Let’s imagine for a moment that we have two men. Both deal in military memorabilia. Both occasionally come across Nazi items and put them up for sale. Both regularly tweet links to their new inventory. One of these men is Jean-Claude, and he lives in Paris. The other is a retiree in Sacramento, California called Bob.
Without per-Jurisdiction filtering, Twitter could only remain in compliance in France by closing both Jean-Claude and Bob’s accounts. Maybe that’s not so bad in Jean-Claude’s case - he’s breaking the laws of his own country from within that country’s borders. But poor Bob now loses a source of sales despite doing nothing wrong.
With per-Jurisdiction filtering, Bob can continue to sell what he wants to customers in the US, Australia, the UK and wherever else. If Twitter does its job extremely well he can also sell WWII American soldier helmets to French buyers, but his tweets pointing to a WWII Luftwaffe jacket won’t be available to those same buyers, becuase it’s illegal there.
Now repeat this example, but for a San Francisco sex toy shop versus Vietnamese law. Or for the account of a Brazillian man who, for reasons unknown, really doesn’t like the King of Thailand.
(5) Assumptions of malice are generally misguided, moreso in the face of opposing evidence
Very few people who go into business online are shadowy, world-goverment conspirators who secretly yearn to suppress you. They’re just not. They’re mostly folks who are extremely passionate about helping people to share new experiences and things.
But you really don’t have to take my word for it in this case. Twitter, before even announcing these new measures, put in place a mechanism for providing complete transparency regarding when, where, how and why any blocked content was blocked.
That’s not the sign of a company secretly desiring to bend to the will of corrupt Arab dictators. It’s the sign of a company doing the best they can to navigate the extremely complex global interplay of laws and cultural standards in a way that maximises the freedom of speakers everywhere.
This move, and the way they went about it, was a sign of good things happening at Twitter.