Ai Weiwei: “If Twitter Censors, I’ll Leave” (Updated)

Fearsomely prolific Twitter user Ai Weiwei has written that “if Twitter censors, I’ll stop tweeting”, following news that the microblogging service is to selectively block posts to comply with local laws.

The new policy has been widely read as a concession to allow Twitter to enter China, in a similar vein to Google’s aborted censorship of search results on Google.cn. The speculation has been fuelled by co-founder Jack Dorsey’s recent visit to Shanghai, though that trip may have had more to do with Dorsey’s e-payment company, Square. Speaking to The Associated Press, Google’s chief legal officer played down the focus on China:

“I think what they (Twitter officials) are wrestling with is what all of us wrestle with — and everyone wants to focus on China, but it is actually a global issue — which is laws in these different countries vary,” Drummond said.

“Americans tend to think copyright is a real bad problem, so we have to regulate that on the Internet. In France and Germany, they care about Nazis’ issues and so forth,” he added. “In China, there are other issues that we call censorship. And so how you respect all the laws or follow all the laws to the extent you think they should be followed while still allowing people to get the content elsewhere …?”

“It’s a tough problem that a company faces once they branch out beyond one set of offices in California into that big bad world out there,” said Rebecca MacKinnon of Global Voices Online, an international network of bloggers and citizen journalists. “We’ll have to see how it plays out — how it is and isn’t used.”

It remains to be seen, for example, how high Twitter will set the bar for “what we believe to be a valid and applicable legal request” for blocking, and where the policy will apply: while the change is intended to allow expansion into countries with “different ideas about the contours of freedom of expression”, the company added that “some differ so much from our ideas that we will not be able to exist there.” Takedown requests are to be catalogued online at chillingeffects.org/twitter, alongside the current list of copyright infringement notices. See more on Twitter’s claimed commitment to transparency at Ars Technica.

Ai would be sorely missed by many Chinese Twitterers. A recent post on the Sinophone twittersphere by Yaxue Cao at Seeing Red in China described his presence there:

You can’t write about Twitter Chinese without talking about Ai Weiwei. Needless to say, he was among the first people I followed. But within 24 hours I unfollowed him, because when I came back on Twitter the next day, OMG, all I saw was @aiww, nothing but @aiww, screen after screen. I figured that I will hear news about him and interesting things he said anyway from retweets ….

Soon enough, I re-followed him, this time feeling the need for a figure like him: he brings to Twitter Chinese warmth, a sense of confidence (although not certainty), street smartness, and he makes you feel a tad stronger, even though he is under surveillance of 9 cameras and multiple police cars permanently parked outside his gate.

See more on Cao’s post via CDT.

In a recent interview with The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos, Ai suggested that the government saw Twitter as a threat akin to Christianity as a potential source of independent community. The comparison arose with reference to the recent departure of writer Yu Jie.

“Internally, since they don’t have a way to discuss issues or communicate, it’s really a deadlock for them, and that keeps creating pressure. They had beaten him—Yu Jie—terribly, because he is related to Christianity, and that is what they hate the most or are scared of the most. They are scared of any form of unity. They wouldn’t be scared of me if I don’t get on Twitter, because on Twitter I can form a community. But, as individuals, they don’t care about you. So they crash down on people quite terribly, and subject people to abuse. I don’t think Yu Jie could stay any longer. In that kind of situation, you just have to say, ‘This is not possible,’” Ai said.

Ai and Osnos also discuss the artist’s iconic and widely coveted Sunflower Seeds, now on display in New York, and the “legal burlesque” of the tax evasion charges which followed his detention last year:

Before I left his house, I asked him he thinks he’ll win his tax case. “No,” he said flatly. “We’re only winning by revealing the truth. We can win in a sense of so many people beginning to understand. They will understand that you cannot win a case, but at least you can say, ‘I have to fight because it’s related to at least thirty thousand supporters.’”

Update: At the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Eva Galperin asks “what does Twitter’s country-by-country takedown system mean for freedom of expression?”

… Right now, we can expect Twitter to comply with court orders from countries where they have offices and employees, a list that includes the United Kingdom, Ireland, Japan, and soon Germany.

… For now, the overall effect is less censorship rather than more censorship, since they used to take things down for all users. But people have voiced concerns that “if you build it, they will come,”–if you build a tool for state-by-state censorship, states will start to use it. We should remain vigilant against this outcome ….

So what should Twitter users do? Keep Twitter honest. First, pay attention to the notices that Twitter sends and to the archive being created on Chilling Effects. If Twitter starts honoring court orders from India to take down tweets that are offensive to the Hindu gods, or tweets that criticize the king in Thailand, we want to know immediately. Furthermore, transparency projects such as Chilling Effects allow activists to track censorship all over the world, which is the first step to putting pressure on countries to stand up for freedom of expression and put a stop to government censorship.