Twitter has announced they will begin deleting tweets at the request of certain countries. This has caused an uproar from free speech advocates. In reality, it simply brings Twitter in line with other major social media sites whose content interacts with the borders and laws of other countries who may not view free expression the same way we do here in the United States.
Note that in my title I used the phrase, “Free Expression” instead of “free speech” or “freedom of speech.” I did this because there is a major difference in application. Whether Twitter does or does not censor content in this country is not a First Amendment issue. The First Amendment only applies to goverment restrictions on speech. Twitter is a private company and can restrict speech in any way it sees fit. It is frankly surprising that Twitter has taken so long to recognize that speech does not occur in social media in a “free expression vacuum”
Prior to this announcement and after, Twitter will continue to be the most liberal platform in terms of free expression. It has virtually no restrictions on speech in it’s Terms of Service. Users are allowed to be as racist, hateful and to a degree threatening as they like as long as the tweet does not constitute a “true threat” as defined by Twitter.
Conspicuously missing are the rules against certain types of “hate speech” that you see on Facebook, YouTube and other major sites even under the most vague definition of such content. This has lead to a wild west atmosphere of ethnic, racial and pretty much any type of vile speech that can be imagined allowable as long as no U.S. laws are being broken and no true threat is made. The problem Twitter faces is that what is legal and allowable here may not be allowable if the tweet originated from another country that has hate speech laws in effect. The must now strike a balance between growth in these countries and free expression. This is not a new dilemma.
eBay and Yahoo banned the buying and selling of Nazi memorabilia world wide even though it is not illegal in the United States but illegal in several countries in Europe. For the last few years Facebook has blocked Holocaust Denial and other content in countries which such expression is illegal even though it is not illegal in this country under First Amendment principles
This was not a morality move nor a judgment on the nature of hate speech or other expression that may be illegal in other countries. Twitter did not care about that before the decision and does not care now. Twitter simply wants worldwide growth and for it’s executives to stay out of foreign courts. In order to accomplish that they have to take world wide morality and legal standards into account. This move was inevitable and necessary to achieve that. Welcome to the “Free Expression Establishment.”