Twitter – When Freedom of Speech Collides with Business Interests

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By Vivian Ni

Feb. 3 – Twitter, the U.S.-based micro-blogging service provider, has recently found itself at the receiving end of criticism due to its new policy that will allow content censorship on a country-by-country basis. The policy adjustment may have revealed Twitter’s interest in returning to the cash-flowing Chinese market, where the government implements strict internet censorship regulations and blocks an array of Western social media web sites.

In a blog post last Thursday, Twitter said that it had refined its technology and gained “the ability to reactively withhold content from users in a specific country – while keeping it available in the rest of the world.” Previously, when the company took down a post at the request of a country’s government, the “tweet” invariably disappeared across the worldwide web.

Advocates for freedom of speech have found Twitter’s new policy hard to accept. Reporters without Borders, a France-based international non-governmental organization that support freedom of the press and information, expressed concern over Twitter’s new move in a letter it wrote to the U.S. company’s executive chairman Jack Dorsey.

“By finally choosing to align itself with the censors, Twitter is depriving cyber dissidents in repressive countries of a crucial tool for information and organization…Twitter’s position that freedom of expression is interpreted differently from country to country is inacceptable. This fundamental principle is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” the group wrote.

However, from a business point of view, Twitter’s new move makes complete sense. The company is in pursuit of an ambitious expansion goal to increase its global users from the current 170 million to more than 1 billion, and may be willing to abide by individual country’s specific laws in order to reach that target.

Among potential countries, the Chinese market – with a micro-blogger population of 140 million already on its dominant domestic micro-blogging platform Sina Weibo – is too huge for Twitter (or any other social media web site) to miss. Even Twitter’s co-founder Biz Stone admitted the fact that the company will not be able to ignore China forever.

“Our philosophy is that open exchange of information can have a positive global impact, and that’s not China’s philosophy…we’re not going to be able to ignore it forever,” said Stone at the CTIA wireless convention held last year, adding that the company was still working on a way to deal with the censorship issues.

Twitter has been banned in China since July 2009, when government attempts to censor the information on the July 2009 Ürümqi riots were largely hampered by Twitter’s powerful message dissemination platform. Together with Twitter, U.S. social media web site Facebook was also blocked in China during the same time.

But indeed, it has been proved many times that China does not really intend to refuse the business opportunities brought on by the emerging social media technology. The country welcomes all the commercial advancement on one condition: companies must follow China’s own rules and keep off the political bottom line. On August 28, 2009, shortly after the blocking of Twitter, China’s largest information portal Sina launched its own micro-blogging service Sina Weibo, and within only 66 days, the number of Weibo subscribers surged to 1 million.

In a two-year period, micro-blogging services have become one of the most important markets that big-name Chinese internet companies are competing to share. Following Sina’s success, Tencent, Baidu, Sohu and Netease have all developed their own micro-blogging platforms, attracting a combined 250 million subscribers by the end of 2011. Homegrown players are able to enjoy this huge market because they can (and do) filter content according to government requirements.

Following the maturity of micro-blogging services in China, Sina expects US$75 million in income from Weibo in 2012 – US$50 million of which will be income from advertisements.

If Twitter does return to China someday, the commercial income from the market will be a welcome addition to Twitter’s global revenue – which the U.S. company aims to increase from US$139.5 million in 2011 to US$540 million in 2014.

The availability of Twitter will also likely help both domestic and foreign companies in China gain more exposure to international clients. Nowadays in China, more and more companies practice their online marketing by incorporating social media directly onto their business sites, but such efforts are partly in vain due to a lack of access to such social media platforms in the country.

Even if we look beyond business interests, Twitter’s new policy may not be that harmful to freedom of speech and may actually find a way to improve free information in countries like China.

The new Twitter policy means the removal of “tweets” will only happen in one part of the world, and such deletions will be clearly announced on the web site Chilling Effects, which will end up drawing attention to cases where it’s been obliged by local law to remove content, said Zeynep Tufekci, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

An example echoing Tufekci’s point can be found on Sina Weibo, which established an account called “Weibo Rumor Buster (Weibo Piyao)” to announce the removal of posts proved untrue. Such announcements have in fact raised public awareness of “forged news,” which are often related to collisions between authorities and ordinary people.

Of course, it is still too early to assert any of Twitter’s strategy towards China, as Twitter will still struggle to comply with China’s strict internet regulations even if it implements its new policy. For example, Twitter will only be able to erase a tweet if it is requested by the government based on valid legal grounds; in contrast, its Chinese peers can delete posts on a broader range of topics without legal review. Additionally, the recently-practiced real-name registration represents another potential roadblock to Twitter’s entry to China.

“We would love for people in China to express themselves…(but) under the current situation, that’s not possible,” said Twitter’s Chief Executive Officer Dick Costolo, who on Monday denied that the new policy was designed for the Chinese market.

In a recent blog post, Reuters journalist Doug Young speculated on the future progress of the event: “…I suspect this move by Twitter may be designed to test the China waters and will be followed by a visit to Beijing to see what regulators think. If the reaction is positive, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Twitter taking some kind of modest initiative in China by the end of this year, though it will face a difficult road catching up to (Sina) Weibo.”

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