CEO: Twitter Can’t Operate in China

Twitter’s announcement that it would start selectively blocking tweets in order to comply with different countries’ legal restrictions brought a storm of criticism and threats of boycott. Among China-watchers, the flames were fanned by a Global Times editorial congratulating the company on its enlightened pragmatism. But Twitter CEO Dick Costolo has denied that the change is an attempt to secure entry to China, as some have speculated. From The Wall Street Journal:

Twitter touched off a torrent of criticism after announcing last week it can remove messages from the online service–known as tweets–within specific countries if asked to do so. Monday, Mr. Costolo said the policy was designed for the company to exist in certain countries, not as a means of censorship ….

The company is just trying to handle the situation in “the most honest, transparent and forward-looking way,” he said. “You can’t reside in countries and not operate within the law.”

The announced policy is not meant as a means for the company to get into countries where it currently isn’t, such as China or Iran. “I don’t think the current environment in China is one in which we can operate,” Mr. Costolo said.

On the WSJ’s Digits blog, Twitter’s chief lawyer reiterated this, pointing out that the tweet-blocking system would be unlikely to satisfy Beijing in any case:

Alex Macgillivray, Twitter’s general counsel, said in an interview on Friday that the announcement wasn’t a “policy change.” Twitter’s “philosophy is still the same” about wanting to protect free speech on the Web as much as possible, he said ….

Macgillivray didn’t delve into what Twitter would or wouldn’t agree to censor in different countries but said the announcement “has nothing to do with China,” where the company’s service has been blocked. He added that authorities there likely wouldn’t care much about Twitter’s system because the company doesn’t filter content before it is posted; rather, it responds to requests to remove tweets after users have posted them.

(Although Sina Weibo does remove published posts, it does so without legal review and as part of a broader arsenal of harmonisation techniques.)

When asked whether Twitter would ever consider proactively filtering content before it is posted based on standing government requests in some countries, like China, Macgillivray said that while it’s “hard to say ‘ever,’ I don’t see how we could do it.”

For more on Costolo’s conference appearance, see Wired and The Verge. TPM obtained more details on how Twitter’s blocking will work. See also criticism of the “birdbrained” new policy from Foreign Policy, and support from the Center for Democracy & Technology, The New Yorker, The Globe and Mail and social media blog Mashable.

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