In the last few weeks, Twitter has embarked on some very high-profile reactions to offensive speech on its network. In England, Twitter temporarily suspended the account of British National party thug Nick Griffin. Griffin, reacting angrily to a discrimination ruling in favor of a same-sex couple denied service at a B&B, wrote a tweet that strikes me as very close to deliberate incitement of imminent violence:
"A British Justice team will come up to [their Huntington address] & give you [Black and Morgan] a … bit of drama by way of reminding you that an English couple's home is their castle. Say No to heterophobia!"
You can find screencaps here.
Meanwhile, Twitter made the account of Hanoverian neo-Nazis inaccessible in Germany at the request of the German government, thus rolling out a promised program to comply with local law by controlling where content can be accessed. Later Twitter pulled anti-Semitic posts at the demands of the French Union of Jewish Students, which "said it would still file a formal complaint against the social network to bring the tweeters to justice."
Twitter is a private company, not a government. When it makes decisions about what content it permits on its network, it is in effect engaging in its own speech and freedom of association. Twitter's decisions about speech are most likely motivated by a desire to be successful in the social media marketplace — to please and attract and retain customers and minimize the costs of government meddling.
But you can't please all of the people all of the time.
If Twitter's operating principle is "we will take down content that is against the law of local jurisdictions," then it should expect to face a barrage of demands that blasphemy and sedition and obscenity be scoured from their networks. This is particularly true if, as the French episode suggests, Twitter will respond not only to official demands but to the demands of interest groups within countries. Those interest groups are even more likely to have an appetite for censorship.
But I suspect that Twitter doesn't want to go that far. Twitter is probably still basking in the conventional wisdom (right or wrong) that it had a central role in toppling tyranny during the Arab Spring. Twitter would probably prefer not to be re-branded as the social media site that will meekly comply with the censorship demands of a hundred querulous nations.
So what can Twitter do? Twitter now faces the problem I've discussed in the context of European governments — once you limit speech offensive to some people, it becomes very awkward to refuse to limit speech offensive to other people. If Twitter tries to stick with a "we will only remove accounts that break local laws," they will quickly find that this is hardly a limiting principle at all in a world in which many countries have broad and flexible laws prohibiting speech. If, on the other hand, they accept demands from private interest groups, Twitter will be thrust into the uncomfortable role of adjudicating the scope of foreign laws and applying them to particular tweets.
Twitter might have more luck limiting content based on principles — whether those principles are "we won't publish speech that appears to incite imminent violence" or something much broader. Even then, I suspect that Twitter will learn that media companies that get into the business of pleasing censors soon find themselves spending a lot of time and money on the business of censorship.
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