Instances of alleged censorship of Twitter profiles aligned with controversial topics such as Occupy Wall Street, SOPA and NDAA continue to be exposed, and leading Web experts are scrambling to debunk the claims.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation responded in a lengthy e-mail Tuesday evening to a request by the International Business Times to explain why the Internet advocacy organization does not believe Twitter censors or blocks users based on the content of their Tweets.
#NDAA has generated at least 117,000 tweets in the last seven days. Does that sound like censorship to anyone? Trevor Timm, an activist with the EFF wrote in the Tuesday email. Most importantly, Twitter--as official company policy--is vehemently against SOPA. So even if they did censor (which, again, they don't), why would they ever censor its users for expressing the company line?
Timm's full response is included at the end of this story.
The issue became a firestorm of sorts over the past several days, as Twitter denied closing the Twitter account of Business Insider reporter David Seaman on the grounds that he was writing too much about the Stop Online Privacy Act, National Defense Authorization Act, Occupy Wall Street and other controversial topics. He made the claims in a Sunday BI column that garnered massive buzz.
A representative from the social media site said its administrators never mediate content. Period, and the company's support team later told him his account was tagged by an automated spam-removal system and that it looks like your account got caught up in one of these spam groups by mistake. I've restored your account; sorry for the inconvenience.
But a number of Twitter users have contacted the IBTimes since the censorship allegations emerged to tell tales of having their accounts shut down in what they too believe are acts of content-based censorship.
Doug Johnson Hatlem, an administrator for the open @OccupyBayStreet and shuttered @OccupyBay2 Twitter accounts, contacted the IBTimes on Monday to report the struggles he and his fellow Tweeters have had maintaining a presence on Twitter to get out messages related to the Occupy Toronto movement.
On the day Occupy Toronto was raided (Nov. 21) we were tweeting and aggregating tweets on police location ahead of the raid. Several of us were tweeting, and we were sent to twitter jail (for the first time--we'd tweeted about 4,000 tweets at that point), Hatlem wrote. We opened up a backup account--@OccupyBay2. Just about the time we left twitter jail w/ @OccupyBayStreet, @OccupyBay2 was suspended. It's still down a month later even though we've sent several notes of explanation to Twitter.
Hatlem said he believes that the fact that @OccupyBay2 tweeted out Toronto Mayor Rob Ford's cell phone number in one of its mere 16 posts may be one of the main reasons someone reported the account for spamming.
A Twitter representative confirmed that it had been reported for spam, but Hatlem said he does not believe Twitter took the initiative to censor his account. Instead he believes Ford or someone else with a vendetta against the Occupy Toronto group reported them for spam, knowing that such a move could get the account closed at least for a short period of time while the Nov. 21 raid was underway.
In other words, we think twitter's spambot remover is the culprit, but that twitter doesn't take into account the use of that blocking function for political means, Hatlem said. It is furthermore too slow to follow up on reports that what is going on is politically rather than spam motivated. David had his account restored quickly once it became a media issue; ours is still down.
Despite the fact that Occupy Toronto is based in Canada, Hatlem's suspicion dovetails with the increasing evidence that the American government and law enforcement agencies are delving ever deeper into social media.
In one of the most recent cases to emerge regarding Twitter censorship, The New York Times exposed on Monday that some American officials said the government was exploring legal options to shut down the Shabab's new Twitter account, referring to the @HSMPress account supposedly run by Somalia's Shabab militant group.
IBTimes was also contacted by Brian Flowers, an administrator for the Occupy Penn State movement's @occupypennstate Twitter account. He said the account was shuttered within a day of it being launched, and was not reinstated until a week later, when he was told it had been caught by Twitter's spam filters.
My personal account has never been suspended however, even though it's dormant around 11 months out of the year, and when I do use it it's in the same manner I used the occupy account (though about different events) -- sending the same tweet with an @ mention to 5-10 different organizations to keep them updated on protests and other activity, Flowers wrote. When I do it from my personal account about our 'corbettville' protest, twitter doesn't care. But when I do it from the 'occupypennstate' account, suddenly I get banned. Smells fishy to me.
Full Text of Electronic Frontier Foundation activist Trevor Timm's response to International Business Times questions about Twitter censorship:
IBTimes: First of all, I am interested to know what led the EFF to say that the censorship claims have been debunked. Is that simply based off of Twitter's denial?
Timm: Twitter has a long history of supporting free speech. They have resisted real U.S. government pressure to shutdown the WikiLeaks account and real U.K. government pressure to censor rioters who were allegedly using Twitter to organize. In each case, Twitter outright refused to even negotiate.
You can read Twitter's official free speech policy (which is much more robust and should be a model for every other social network) here: http://blog.twitter.com/2011/01/tweets-must-flow.html
But my comments were not just based on Twitter's official policy, it's history of resisting government pressure, and current comments. It was also the facts of the situation.
Judging by the original user's tweets, it's very easy to see why he was flagged for spam or caught in a filter. He was a new account, he was sending the exact same message to many people who weren't his followers, in a short period of time. Plus, he was using a high traffic hashtag. When hashtags become popular, spammers specifically target them, so Twitter probably watches them closer for spam than posts that don't have hashtags. That is classic spam behavior.
In this case, he wasn't spamming, and that's why Twitter restored his account.
But the particular claim that Twitter is censoring people tweeting about the #NDAA and #SOPA doesn't even withstand basic logic. First of all, I, and pretty much everyone I follow, would've been censored months ago. Second, #NDAA has generated at least 117,000 tweets in the last seven days. Does that sound like censorship to anyone? Third, and most importantly, Twitter-as official company policy-is vehemently against SOPA. So even if they did censor (which, again, they don't), why would they ever censor its users for expressing the company line?
The story not only doesn't withstand scrutiny, it doesn't even pass the smell test.
IBTimes: Also, do you have any response to the lengthy email I received from the [@OccupyBayStreet] Twitter account administrators?
Timm: I can't comment on the speed of Twitter's response to people challenging spam reports. All I know is that Twitter does not censor for content. But even when caught in the spam filter it's still not about content. It's about how old the user is, if they are copy-pasting the same message, the time in between messages, sending that same message to people who don't follow them, etc.
IBTimes: One more thing: I also just received this message from Brian Flowers, who was in charge of one of the Occupy Penn State Twitter accounts that was shut down shortly after it was opened. Can you please also address this message in your response?
Timm: In response to this question and the question above it, new accounts are often flagged for spam quicker than old accounts because spammers have a penchant for making accounts just for the purpose of spamming. Because the second user had an older account that hadn't been flagged for spam for almost a year, the spam filters probably let it go.
Hope that helps. Let me know if I can clarify.