It’s clear by now that Twitter’s new censorship regime is a pre-emptive move to keep the scope of censorship to within the jurisdictions of the legal authorities making the requests. This way, if Twitter is obliged by French law to remove a tweet deemed illegal in France, it will only be removed from French timelines — the rest of the world will continue to see it.
In its implementation, Twitter’s censorship system is very easy to circumvent by users — no doubt intentionally. I’ve played around with it using a virtual private network (VPN) to access my account from various countries in various setups; the workaround is trivial, albeit with a few twists.
Twitter’s own FAQ pages give two massive hints as to how to go about it:
- Which censorship regime your account will follow is decided by having Twitter geolocate your browser’s IP address to set your “initial country” in the settings.
- However, because Twitter might “misidentify” your country, Twitter says you get to manually override the chosen country in your Twitter account settings. Your choice is saved as a cookie in your browser. Twitter says it does not store this information on its servers.
Circumventing Twitter’s censorship is not as easy as choosing the “Worldwide” option from the dropdown menu of countries — a choice which you might assume places you outside any jurisdiction.
Choosing “Worldwide” has the opposite effect, in fact: Your censorship regime will automatically default to whatever jurisdiction your browser finds itself in. So if you choose “Worldwide” from a Swedish IP address, your country setting will immediately switch to Sweden. If you later move to an Egyptian IP address, the country setting will automatically switch to Egypt.
The “Worldwide” setting is Twitter’s default. If you haven’t changed your country manually in your account settings, this is how Twitter will choose your censorship regime. (If your IP address is not on the dropdown list of 59 countries, such as for Belgium, then the country is listed as “Worldwide” *.)
What if you are in the US, and want to ensure that your censorship regime stays American when you travel? Even though your country is listed as “United States” by default, that will change when you leave the US, unless you do this: Select any other country, save changes (and provide your password), then select the United States, and save changes. Even though the before and after settings will look exactly the same, you have now forced the browser to choose the US as your country, as opposed to whatever country you happen to be in.
But regardless of what country you happen to be in, why not choose one with best practices in free speech? A quick look at the Press Freedom Index shows that the Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland are great choices. The governments of the Netherlands and Sweden in particular have been vocal in their defense of the net freedom agenda.
I’ve confirmed by using the same Twitter account on several browsers simultaneously across different IP addresses that the country setting for each browser is independent, saved locally in a cookie. This means you can have a second browser set to a different country, in case your default setting coughs up a censored tweet. It’s also a great way to compare and contrast censorship regimes.
In sum, circumventing Twitter’s censorship model is trivial, and I’m sure that’s not because Twitter is incompetent. What I do worry about is that this model is not robust against the future demands of censors. The wording of SOPA and PIPA, had they become law, could have been construed to classify the opt-out nature of Twitter’s censorship model as an enabler of piracy. And what about those Taliban tweets? If the US ever gets around to censoring those, it would certainly not be content with barring them just from the US; Twitter is a US company, and it can be compelled to act globally by US law.
While the newly introduced censorship model will allow Twitter to expand to countries like France and Germany, where historical baggage from World War II results in peculiar censorship regimes, or the UK, which has unique defamation laws, it is possible that new laws or future legal tests of Twitter’s approach will prohibit this censorship model. It’s great of Twitter to try, of course, but it makes Twitter’s expansion into new jurisdictions somewhat precarious, as the company may suddenly find itself faced with the grim choice of having to dismantle its opt-out censorship model in some jurisdictions, or pulling out operations from that country entirely.
Fortunately. Twitter is unlikely to ever set up shop in countries where revolutionaries are still fighting the good fight, and relying on Twitter to do so. In those countries, Twitter will not care about what the regime demands. They’ll just have to block Twitter wholesale, just as Iran, Vietnam and China currently do.
(* I suspect, but cannot prove absent a censored recent tweet to test with, that when Worldwide is selected for an IP address not from a listed country, the censorship regime defaults to that of the US. One reason I think this is the case is that only from a US IP address is it possible to select the “Worldwide” option from the dropdown menu and not have it switch automatically to the current jurisdiction, in this case “United States”. I think this is because the browser compares the two jurisdictions and sees they are the same, so does not bother to force the switch.)