How Would Twitter Handle A Crackdown On Free Speech In Saudi Arabia?

from the questions-questions-questions... dept

Twitter has put itself out there as being a strong defender of free speech, arguing that it's not just a principled stand, but one that provides the company with a competitive advantage. Standing up for free speech is good -- not just for people, but for Twitter too. There was a series of stories highlighting this aspect of Twitter in the past few months, where Twitter's top lawyer, Alex Macgillivray, said things like the following:
“We value the reputation we have for defending and respecting the user’s voice,” Mr. Macgillivray said in an interview here at Twitter headquarters. “We think it’s important to our company and the way users think about whether to use Twitter, as compared to other services.”
With that in mind, it's interesting to see just how much "free speech" via Twitter has taken off in places like Saudi Arabia. The NY Times has an interesting discussion on how Twitter has become a surprisingly open channel for critics of the Saudi regime.
Open criticism of this country’s royal family, once unheard-of, has become commonplace in recent months. Prominent judges and lawyers issue fierce public broadsides about large-scale government corruption and social neglect. Women deride the clerics who limit their freedoms. Even the king has come under attack.
All via Twitter. So far, the government has let this continue -- even as members of the royal family are often directly called out and, at times, accused of corruption. Some think that the government is hoping that letting people vent on Twitter will keep them from venting in the streets. But there is still fear that things might change and a real crackdown could be on the way.

And that could represent a real challenge for Twitter. Remember, just last week, it agreed to block a neo-nazi group's Twitter feed in Germany. And, there are also reports that it recently removed a bunch of anti-semitic tweets, potentially for terms of service violations. And that is worrying some people.
Several Twitter users posting under the hashtag criticized the decision to delete the anti-Semitic posts, calling it censorship. A user calling himself Andre said: “Better to educate than censure. Shame on you Twitter.” Another, Craig McLeod, asked, “Who decides what is anti-Semitic and abusive?”
Considering all that, as Mathew Ingram has asked: what happens if Saudi Arabia suddenly declares the criticism its government is facing is illegal? Then what does Twitter do? Does it decide that the openness is something it wants to support as free speech... or does it abide by the law and block those accounts? Suddenly, the problem is a lot more challenging.

I don't know that there's an easy answer, but it does seem that once you compromise on one front, it becomes somewhat more difficult to justify a principled stand elsewhere...


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
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    out_of_the_blue, Oct 22nd, 2012 @ 4:25pm

    "or does it abide by the law" -- Common Law or an edict?

    "We hold these Truths to be self-evident..." is a start on the Common Law that's true at all places and all times, and it arises by divine bestowal (or the mere fact of human existence), not by any temporal acts or permissions. Statutes are rules passed by supposedly public servants, and are actually below Common Law, not above it. -- So if the tyrants of Saudi Arabia set penalties on some speech, then one might follow it to avoid the penalty, but it ain't Law, is just plain tyranny.

    That distinction (partly, vaguely) clarified, bet your last cent that Twitter, being an amoral soul-less corporation only out for money and power, goes along with the tyranny. You can't give a counter-example.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Oct 22nd, 2012 @ 4:35pm

    Re: "or does it abide by the law" -- Common Law or an edict?

    That's way too cynical. Corporations have actual people working for them, you know. And in the case of American corporations, those people are Americans and inclined to believe in things like free speech.

    What does Twitter care what Saudi Arabia thinks? Unless they for some reason have a Saudi office, what can they DO to them? Institute a contrywide block?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3.  
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    Androgynous Cowherd, Oct 22nd, 2012 @ 5:05pm

    If they have no physical presence on Saudi soil (servers, offices, etc.) the Saudi police and courts would lack any jurisdiction over them. Their sole recourse if Twitter refused would be to try to block access to the domain from within Saudi borders. So the situation may be different from that in a country where Twitter has a presence.

     

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  4.  
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    Greg G, Oct 22nd, 2012 @ 5:16pm

    Re: "or does it abide by the law" -- Common Law or an edict?

    That distinction (partly, vaguely) clarified, bet your last cent that Twitter, being an amoral soul-less corporation only out for money and power, goes along with the tyranny. You can't give a counter-example.

    So we're supposed to take your word for it that you just know that Twitter will go along with tyranny? Yea, that makes a lot of sense. Yes, they want to have their business model stifled by a tyrannical government.

    You might want to sit back down at your desk and let AJ resume the position.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Oct 23rd, 2012 @ 7:34am

    Re:

    The Saudi royal family has been investing heavily in Twitter. I've wondered in the past when I read stories about this whether or not this was in preparation to exert their will over the company if the time came when they needed to.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Oct 23rd, 2012 @ 7:38am

    Re: Re: "or does it abide by the law" -- Common Law or an edict?

    Saudi Prince Alwaleed owns a $300 million stake in Twitter.

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204791104577107733831343976.html

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7.  
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    Laroquod (profile), Oct 23rd, 2012 @ 11:43am

    With country-specific censorship in place, it seem highly unlikely that we will ever again see Twitter at the centre of a movement like Arab Spring -- at least, not for long.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8.  
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    andre, Oct 24th, 2012 @ 11:42am

    Thanks for the mention. I am the 'user called Andre.' Its humbling to see my tweet to my small 500 followers travel so far. It demonstrates the power and reach of twitter and why perhaps those with corrupted power fear it. People with absolute power do not want their citizens to reach out this much. It decentralises power and opinion.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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