Faculty, students react to Twitter's policy of withholding tweets

Some say the policy is a form of censorship, while others say it is a smart business move.

Discussions about the merits and shortfalls of Twitter’s recently announced policy of withholding certain tweets are playing out at Syracuse University, much as they are around the globe.

Two weeks ago, Twitter announced it will withhold tweets that are illegal in the country they originate from if the country makes a “valid and applicable” legal request.

“Twitter has really equalized a lot of the playing field when it comes to free speech, so everybody has a voice and everybody has an audience.”
- Roy Gutterman

Some are decrying the move as a form of censorship. But others say it a smart business move that does not go too far to censor users.

Twitter’s previous policy for tweets containing illegal content in a country was to remove the tweet entirely from the website globally. This new policy would only block the tweet in the country where it is illegal. In addition, the tweet is not removed, but covered with a banner that says it is withheld.

Roy Gutterman, director of the Tully Center for Free Speech, believes Twitter’s move goes against its usual role as a venue for free speech, he said.

“Twitter has really equalized a lot of the playing field when it comes to free speech,” he said, “so everybody has a voice and everybody has an audience.”

For example, Twitter has been credited with providing participants in the Egyptian revolution a place to organize and share their struggles with the world.

But Gutterman is afraid the new policy will create a chilling effect, quieting those in countries where the notion of freedom of speech differs widely from what Americans understand. A platform like Twitter gives users nearly the same reach and same audience as the organized media and publishers. So, censoring tweets could be as dangerous as doing so for a news media outlet, he said.

This sounds more like a business plan to Gutterman than keeping the spirit of free speech, he said.

“It sounds like they're trying to make a business decision to avoid getting in trouble in foreign countries because they want to be in business everywhere,” he said.

But that business savvy is exactly why the new policy is sound, said William Ward, a social media professor in the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. With the policy, Twitter will be able to operate in countries where it might otherwise be banned, he said.

For example, Google decided to stop censoring its content in China and was banned from the country as a result. “As much as people respected their stands on it or thought that that was the right thing to do, it was a poor business decision that kept them out of the market,” Ward said.

In addition to being a good business decision, Twitter’s policy is not full censorship, Ward said. Withheld tweets will still go out to other countries, so users will still have a voice and be heard, he said.

Twitter is also making efforts to be transparent about what gets blocked, said Kelly Lux, online communication and relationship manager for the School of Information Studies. For example, Twitter has partnered with Chilling Effects, a project created to monitor First Amendment and intellectual property laws in online activities.

The partnership between Twitter and Chilling Effects will allow people track cases where tweets or users were censored and why. The information is open and accessible for everyone to see on a Twitter’s Chilling Effects page.

“I think they're trying to do the right thing and by being transparent, which is what we always say in social media, hopefully they'll be rewarded and other companies will follow suit,” Lux said.

Still, questions remain about how the policy will be enforced and play out, said Lyness Williams, a media studies graduate student.

“The line is kind of blurry as far as what gets censored,” she said. “Who's in charge of the process? How are they finding this information?”

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