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Can selective blocking pre-empt wider censorship?

A screen shot showing part of a Twitter blog post in which the company announced it could now censor messages on a country-by-country basis. (AP/Twitter)

Last week, Twitter provoked a fierce debate online when it announced a new capability--and related policy--to hide tweets on a country-specific basis. By building this feature into its website's basic code, Twitter said it hoped to offer a more tailored response to legal demands to remove tweets globally. The company will inform users if any tweet they see has been obscured, and provide a record of all demands to remove content with the U.S.-based site chillingeffects.org.

A number of outlets also noted that changing the country from which Twitter assumes you are viewing would be relatively easy--just a matter of tweaking a setting on your profile. So if content is blocked in the U.K. only, British readers would be able to see the original content by switching to a U.S. setting.

Earlier this month, Google introduced a similar process for blogs hosted on its Blogger service. If a site contained content prohibited in a country, readers there would be redirected to a new, filtered website address. Users in other countries would see the original content. Readers in blocked countries could switch to the unblocked version by visiting a special URL.

These models, in a roundabout way, have evolved from previous experiences of Silicon Valley tech companies in dealing with foreign jurisdictions. Yahoo lost a jurisdictional and technical argument in 2000 when it claimed that it could not prevent French users from participating in auctions of Nazi memorabilia on its site, an act prohibited by French law. Technical experts testified that Yahoo could identify and therefore block the majority of French users by examining their IP addresses. Yahoo eventually took the simpler step of refusing Nazi memorabilia sales entirely. A French law became a global one for Yahoo users because Yahoo first denied it had the capability, and then neglected to implement a technical system for separating French readers from other visitors.

Google, faced with similar challenges over the lawfulness of YouTube content, took a different tack. Acknowledging that it could block selectively by location, the company chose that route when local law requires. For instance, videos that breach British law forbidding the filming of court proceedings have been blocked in the UK only. Videos that demean the Turkish founder, Atatürk, are blocked only in Turkey, where they are deemed illegal.

In Google's case, the code to regionally block preceded the policy decision. YouTube has always had a very overt system of regional blocking, which is used to prevent copyrighted material from being shown in countries where the content was not licensed for distribution. The company repurposed this tool for legal censorship requests.

Now Twitter and Google are building their own, new tools specifically to deal with legal requests. Both argue that their wish is to minimize the amount of content that is deleted from their site entirely.

All of which illustrates the truth of the old geek adage "code is law". What governments can oblige companies to do is heavily influenced by what the companies themselves have previously built. In the case of Twitter, no national censorship demands have so far been accepted, even though the company has expanded into countries such as the U.K. where civil lawsuits can require content be taken down by intermediaries.

The question is: Will the pre-emptive creation of blocking code limit damaging legal restrictions?

Twitter's new code attempts to mirror what many countries see as the territorial limit of their powers. When the French courts demanded that Yahoo block French users from participating in Nazi auctions, they did not see themselves as having the authority to order Yahoo to cease all such auctions.

But that's not the case for the most press-unfriendly regimes. They don't want to simply hide content from some users; they want offending content removed in its entirety worldwide. And if they can't get that through legal means, they will attempt to obtain it through threats, internal technical measures, or ingenious workarounds of their own. The Turkish courts did not accept Youtube's selective blocking of Atatürk videos, so they blocked the entire YouTube site. States that want information removed from Facebook will be as likely to use floods of fake complaints or drown out the data from their own users, as happens in countries like Syria and Bahrain.

Code has another influence on censors. What censoring states truly want from companies such as Twitter and Facebook varies by how the sites are built and used.

Twitter's 140-character limit is not a physical restriction, but simply a constraint arbitrarily built into the site's code. That simple, coded, limit affects everything that Twitter users do, and what censors wish to stop. The code defines the community.

The most intrusive censorship regimes are concerned about micro-blogging sites not because of specific statements they wish removed, but because they are used to quickly spread news. Reporters break stories on Twitter; readers link to journalism on it. Both are dangerous practices in censorious countries.

You can't stop the flow of tweets by issuing a court order to Twitter to lock down a single posting. You certainly can't do it by restricting visibility in a single country. What a censor needs in such cases is the ability to pre-emptively block entries--defining a series of keywords that will silence an entire set of micro-blog entries on a particular topic.

This is what China does with its local Twitter competitors. It's the power that future legislators will seek in order to control the spread of allegedly defamatory language, supposedly offensive slurs to national heroes, and information about protests and riots.

From their current statements, providing such prior restraint is a line that Twitter currently refuses to cross. Whether they can maintain that stance amid global expansion and more carefully tailored legal challenges is unclear.

Twitter's new code is an attempt to pre-emptively fend off legal attacks that seek to remove its users' content. It seems a sincere and thoughtful attempt to limit the damage. Its many critics are also right in being concerned that it reveals a new front in censorship. Unfortunately, the first shots in that fight were fired a long time ago.

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