Retrograde step

Retrograde step

The microblogging website Twitter seems to have made a compromise on the basic principles on which it was founded and which made it popular around the world, by expressing readiness to block tweets on a country-to-country basis on demands or requests from governments.

Till now it could only black out a message all over the world and it claims that advancement of technology makes it possible to withhold tweets in a particular country.

But the question is not one of technological ability but of  commitment to online freedom of expression. Twitter had helped to make freedom possible and real in many countries and societies where dictatorships held sway and it aided open and unfettered communication among people. The contribution of the website to the revolutions in the Arab world and in aiding popular movements elsewhere is well-known. The latest policy is retrograde from that point of view.

Under the new system, Twitter can block tweets from a particular country on a request from a legally constituted authority which will often happen to be governments, mainly autocratic dispensations.  Such demands are made even by democratic governments as is seen from the attitude of the Indian government to social networking sites.

Courts most often do not come into the picture and laid down procedures are not followed. It will be difficult for the website to judge the genuineness of the demand and so the blocking of messages would amount to arbitrary censorship and imposition of restrictions on speech. If the new system is followed it will become most difficult to get out of restrictive societies information that governments do not want to be known to the world.

Twitter claims that the policy does not abet censorship because it will also notify the users of the blocking of the message and will disclose the source and details of the restraint request in a website that monitors threats to freedom of expression.

It might give the world an idea of who wants the restrictions but will not in actual practice help the goal of free flow of opinions and information. So Twitter’s claim that the approach is good for freedom, transparency and accountability cannot be accepted as correct and convincing.

Twitter is now expanding to more countries and this might bring in commercial interests and considerations. Online freedom activists believe that this may be reason for the new approach. It is unfortunate if that is so.