To tweet or not to tweet: that is the question


If William Shakespeare were drafting Hamlet’s soliloquy nowadays, he would probably rejuvenate it in this way. Indeed, the popular and omnipresent social network has recently been the object of some heated discussion over its notorious tweets.

The first debate directly concerned Twitter with regard to its new policy changes, whereas the second involved the unattended juridical consequences that may follow from a tweet.

The Inquisition 2.0?

On January 26th, Twitter announced that thanks to its latest technology improvements, it is now able to “reactively withhold content from users in a specific country”. This is the kind of announcement that immediately triggers apprehension and censorship suspicion: indeed, why should a social network withhold content if not to restrict one’s freedom of expression?

However, if one keeps on reading Twitter’s statement and further explores the policy changes, one begins to understand that, in spite of unavoidable first-impressions, these policy modifications are indeed a positive improvement.

In fact, as one may read on Twitter’s blog, the removed content will be kept available in the rest of the world whereas, previously, if a court ordered to remove a tweet, this would have been removed globally. Though the new policy is clearly motivated by Twitter’s yearning for market expansion, it actually enhances freedom of speech instead of diminishing it.

Indeed, being blocked on a national level, one’s “illegal” expressions will still reach the majority of tweeters (i.e. in any country where the same content isn’t considered as illegal) that will keep on “enjoying” the content. Moreover, the withholding procedure won’t be a priori: instead, it will be put in place only in response to “a valid and applicable legal request”.

Those tweets shalt be cursed!

As Cain was cursed and marked for murdering his brother Abel, a sign will be appointed to the banned tweets, so that allowed users may identify the censored content. Though this option may appear as a form of balkanization, it will actually represent a great surplus value for human rights advocates. Indeed, tweets are going to be withheld locally while visible and marked globally. Therefore, it will be much easier to demonstrate which contents are arbitrarily censored and do not fit the International standards provisions such as article 19.3 (b) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Twitter’s new technique will make it more difficult for authoritarian regimes to justify that harmless tweets, such as #democracy or open invitations to peacefully gather in order to demonstrate against oppressive measures, might be removed by virtue of some ordre public issue. Those who will order to remove innocuous content will have to do it openly vis-à-vis the internet and international community.

Furthermore, the censored tweets will be taken down or marked according to the IP address of the users. This kind of measure will leave the possibility to keep on access the obscured content by simply changing the Country Setting, therefore weakening the impact of censorship.

Mind the tweet!

Another interesting episode recently involved Twitter in an indirect way. Indeed, a bizarre accident shed light on the nature of tweets and on the limits to freedom of expression that one has to take into consideration.

The unfortunate event involved a couple of Irish tourists who were stopped and handcuffed at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) because of their “suspicious” tweets.  Indeed, as many other social networks, Twitter is monitored by a considerable number of U.S. special agents that were – probably disproportionately – alerted when they figured out that Mr. Leigh Van Bryan, an Irishman, was tweeting:

Free this week, for quick gossip/prep before I go and destroy America

After questioning the couple for some hours, and despite the fact that the two tourists stressed the euphemistic nature of the tweet, Homeland Security officials sent them back to Ireland arguing that they were not allowed into the country.

Though this episode may sound really “peculiar”, it is not a first. In fact, in January 2010, another traveler had to face the unexpected consequences of his incautious tweet. This time it was Mr. Paul Chambers, a British citizen, who, according to the Guardian, “had his computers and phones seized and was subsequently charged and convicted of causing a “menace” under the [U.K.] Communications Act 2003”.

Mr. Chambers was indeed charged under “improper use of public electronic communication network” because, while colorfully complaining about snow problems at Robin Hood Airport, he expressed his disappointment asserting that were he prevented from reaching his girlfriend in Dublin, he would have “blow[n]the airport sky-high”.

A chilling effect or an Orwellian one?

Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right, enshrined in binding and enforceable proscriptions on both sides of the Atlantic (i.e. First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and both Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Article 11 of the Charter of Fundamental rights of the European Union).

The aforementioned episodes might seem to signal an anti-freedom-of-expression trend. However, one has to consider that even if Human Rights are both a justification and a limitation of power, any sovereign State has the right to define restrictions on people’s freedom of expression in order to protect national security or public order.

What is worth remarking is that tweets are non-private messages. Hence, though one may argue that this kind of network policing and freedom-of-expression limiting may trigger a chilling effect, one has to recognize that the public nature of the tweet allows every individual to “follow” it. And a “follower” may be a naïve acquaintance or a special – and slightly Orwellian – agent.

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