How will Twitter censorship affect people living in Thailand?


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By now most of you will have read about Twitter's adoption of a country-specific approach to censorship. In case you missed it:

Twitter has adopted Google's tactics for coping with legally binding censorship demands: from now on, when it receives a legal demand to censor a tweet, it will only censor that tweet for users in the country from which the demand emanates. Other countries' users will still see it. Users in the censored country will see a notice that material has been censored. Additionally, all censorship demands will be archived at Chillingeffects.org, a clearinghouse that tracks Internet censorship. (Boing Boing)

For people living in Thailand, the issue of censorship is particularly sensitive because of the country's strict lese majeste laws. Criticism of the monarchy is forbidden by Thai law and can get you into all sorts of bother, as we've seen numerous times in the past few years. Censorship of the Internet by successive Thai governments is an issue that all of us living here have had to content with.

Thailand’s lese majeste law prevents criticism of the country’s king and royal family and it was most famously behind the blockage of YouTube in 2006. Once the offending videos were made unavailable in Thailand, the Google-owned video sharing site was open once again in the country. (The New Web)

Thailand has some of the toughest censorship laws in the world, ranking it 153 out of 178 in Reporters Without Borders' 2011 Press Freedom Index. Thailand's lese-majeste regulations inhibit defamatory, insulting or threatening comments about the royal family, which are punishable by up to 15 years in prison, but under Thailand's 2007 computer crimes act prosecutors have been able to increase sentences. (Guardian)

Without the freedom to speak freely about certain topics, people in Thailand are forever trapped in a society that restricts their ideas and attempts to maintain a balance of power that only benefits a select number of people/groups. This is nothing new.

What is relatively new in the grand scheme of things is how Twitter has evolved into a tool that facilitates the free flow of ideas, discussions and information. We saw this happen in Thailand in 2010 when troops and protesters clashed in the streets of Bangkok.

Given the current state of power plays in the country, it's unsurprising that there are those in power who want to stifle how free online discussions can be. We've already seen this. So when Twitter came out with its new censorship scheme, it raised a lot of eyebrows and of course people reacted angrily. There was a 24-hour Twitter blackout that saw some users abandon their accounts for all of a day in the hope of sending a message to the powers that be that censorship won't be tolerated. Obviously this had no effect on Twitter's policy.

Twitter plans to expand in a big way:

Among other things, Twitter wants to expand its audience from about 100 million active uses to more than 1 billion.

Reaching that goal will require expanding into more countries, which will mean Twitter will be more likely to have to submit to laws that run counter to the free-expression protections guaranteed under the first amendment in the US. (Boing Boing)

It's fair to say that there is no other social media platform that can do what Twitter does with the same kind of reach. Imagine if Twitter were able to expand to a billion users. It would be phenomenal. It will be phenomenal. But in order to expand — to survive, in fact — Twitter needs to play by the rules in certain countries, including Thailand.

Twitter's policy is purposely similar to Google's, but there won't be any boycotts of Google. It would be futile and self-defeating, as is a boycott of Twitter.

The problem is not Twitter. The problem is within the law as it stands in Thailand. For many of us living in the country, we deliberately self-censor what we publish on the Internet. This goes for Twitter, Facebook, blogs, anything. We understand there is a law and we abide by it for fear of being caught out and going to prison. When Mr Marshall writes something that could get people into trouble, he deliberately asks people living in Thailand to think before they click "like" or retweet his words.

We censor ourselves every day because we're afraid of what can happen. This isn't Twitter's fault. We have to continue using Twitter to push boundaries, to push the discussion on. If we all stop using Twitter then the discussion stops altogether. Also, we haven't seen how this is going to affect Twitter users in Thailand. We're really just speculating at this point. But see the "bigger picture".

What a lot of people seem to have missed from the announcement is that what Twitter is doing is completely transparent.

The first thing to keep in mind is that Twitter’s guidelines have long said that, “International users agree to comply with all local laws regarding online conduct and acceptable content.” According to last year’s official blog post on censorship, Twitter did already sometimes take down tweets that were deemed “illegal.”

Most or all of those removed tweets so far have, it seems, been related copyright violation takedown requests under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act in the U.S. The takeaway here, though, is that Twitter’s rules have always allowed them to remove illegal content at the request of governments, and they never said they wouldn’t. So what has changed? Technology and transparency.

The new censorship technology announced by Twitter allows the company to block tweets or users on a country-by-country basis. Previously, blocking tweets had to be done globally, meaning if an oppressive regime asked Twitter to remove a tweet or block a user, it had to be done for everyone in the world. Now, Twitter can remove that tweet in that country, but allow the world to see it.

If a government asks Twitter to remove an offending tweet, the company essentially has two options: Comply and block that single tweet or user in that country (while still allowing the rest of the world to see), or refuse and risk the government itself blocking Twitter for everyone in that country. So which seems better for activists? I’ll pick the former any day — it still allows activists to speak to the world at large and draw attention to their treatment. That’s something Reuters’ Anthony DeRosa posits could be more powerful.

Further, because Twitter has promised to increase their transparency about takedown requests, it should become easier for activists to monitor which countries are censoring their citizens. As NPR’s Andy Carvin noted on Twitter, every social media platform faces these same sorts of requests. Twitter is just being more transparent about how they deal with them. (Mashable)

Twitter has even outlined how to work around the cenrsorship, so again, the problem is not with Twitter. The problem lies elsewhere.

On that note, it was predictable that the Thai government was the first in the world to come out strongly in favour of the new policy.

The Information and Communication Technology Ministry will work with Twitter to ensure that tweets disseminated in Thailand are in compliance with local law.

ICT permanent secretary Jeerawan Boonperm said Twitter's move to censor or block content regarded as offensive in particular countries was a "welcome development".

The ICT Ministry will contact Twitter shortly to discuss ways in which they could collaborate, she said. (Bangkok Post)

So how will this affect people living in Thailand? As I see it, it will help fuel discussions on censorship in the country and lead to more unified, vocal calls for changes to the law. It will see more people added to the discussions and give the public an opportunity to really scrutinise what is being censored and why. It also means that Twitter being blocked altogether in Thailand or anywhere else isn't an issue. It's not an ideal situation, but that's not because of Twitter.

I am not in favour of censorship, but I want to examine this issue from all possible angles rather than jump headfirst into something I don't understand.

What say you?

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2 thoughts on “How will Twitter censorship affect people living in Thailand?

  1. Like I explained in a re-share of your article on Google Plus:

    Censorship is never a good thing (IMHO), and it's by implementing more and more censorship that somewhere in time "that last drop will flood the bucket" (translation from a Dutch proverb). That being said, the lese-majesty law does have its charm, it reflects the deep-rooted respect Thais have for their King and somehow it would almost be a shame to lose that final piece of dignity (before capitalism trumps and a republic is born).

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