Repressive Regimes Rejoice, Twitter to Censor Content

twitter bird censoredTwitter dropped quite the shocker last week when it declared its new policy to remove Tweets in certain countries to abide by specific national laws. While a tweet will remain visible to the rest of the world, specific messages will disappear in the target country (e.g., following requests by governments).

The ensuing backlash saw a lot of people screaming “censorship” (ironically, on Twitter). While the first wave of criticism has quickly calmed down, for a human rights watchdog, the announcement is quite alarming:

As we continue to grow internationally, we will enter countries that have different ideas about the contours of freedom of expression. …. Until now, the only way we could take account of those countries’ limits was to remove content globally. Starting today, we give ourselves the ability to reactively withhold content from users in a specific country — while keeping it available in the rest of the world.


What detention looks like on Twitter

One of the side effects of our new social networking technology is we are getting to see human rights violations and the workings of security agencies occur in real time through tools such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.  I’ve known that for some time, but the knowledge feels different when it’s someone you have met who is affected.

Laila el-Haddad is a Duke graduate and Gaza activist.  She lives most of the time in Gaza but has returned to Duke on several occasions to talk about the Middle East.  She was passing through Cairo’s airport today on way to another venue when suddenly she and her family members were detained.

el-Haddad immediately started Twittering her detention.  If you have a Twitter account, you can follow her postings at @gazamom.  For more than 12 hours she described the unreal procession of questionings, of waiting, of discussions with the other detainees.  The most recent word she gives is authorities are denying her return to Gaza but will deport her to the U.S.

But not just a window into the detention, Twitter was also a means by which other activists could come to her assistance.  Friends at Duke immediately got in touch; American and Egyptian authorities were pressed for more information.  It seems unlikely that in this case she was saved from actual arrest, but Twitter has been credited in gaining releases in other cases.

Beyond the Twitter aspect, the detention also casts light on the hypocracy of many Arab governments’ support for Palestinian activists. The government’s support for Palestine often goes only as far as it serves their own purposes; when activists make the cause their own independently, it often — as it did in Laila’s case — brings the weight of the security forces on them.

More on Twitter: Activists in Moldova are attempting to see what a revolution would look like on Twitter.  Click here for the story.

(Thursday update and More on Twitter: Today, Egyptian police broke into the house of blogger Wael Abbas.  His reports are available on Twitter at @waelabbas.)