I’ve been telling reporters that Twitter’s new national blocking policy was like Chekhov’s gun. Its recent appearance inevitably prefigured its future use.
High up on the list of countries that I thought might take the first step was Brazil; it was one of the first countries to make demands on Google for takedowns, and still remains the country with the highest number of content takedown requests for that company. Sure enough, today, Brazil’s federal prosecutor was seeking an injunction to prevent Twitter users from warning others of radar speed traps.
As we’ve explained before, Brazil’s high ranking in Google’s transparency data doesn’t mean that Brazil is the most draconian censor in the world; it just means that Brazil, like many South American countries, has a judicial system that allows individuals to demand content takedown, and often instructs intermediaries like Google and Twitter to comply with these orders. The prosecutor’s order, if a judge agrees, will be aimed at users, but would almost certainly be enforced via a demand on Twitter itself.
The question I posed last week will then come up: will simply hiding the content from Brazilian users, post facto, be enough to satisfy the courts? Will seeing notification of the content vanishing from their Twitter streams encourage readers to search for it elsewhere? Will the courts pursue these traffic reports if they move to other social media sites? News of radar traps and roadblocks are obviously highly time-sensitive. Will the prosecutor seek to require the courts (or Twitter) to preemptively filter future tweets on this topic?
When discussing press freedom, it might seem a stretch to seize on the right to send bite-sized traffic reports as a bellwether. But it does not take much to move from radar trap announcements to the reports made by citizen journalists in Mexico, who use Twitter to notify their community of drug cartel roadblocks and shootings. In China, allegedly false rumors spread online have led to arrests; in Mexico, incorrect rumors spread on Twitter have been transformed into charges of terrorism. When simply disseminating information becomes a criminal offense, the more dangerous it becomes to report any news. And the more topical news is, the more tempted governments will be to press for pre-emptive censorship, instead of slow-moving and retrospective court orders.