Twitter wants to be a truly global company. That means dealing with its share of headaches, both foreign and domestic.
The latest case in point comes in Twitter’s troubled relationship with Turkey, a country that over the past few months has challenged the microblogging service on its ideas of censorship, libel and what should or shouldn’t count as restricted content.
The problems truly started to bubble up recently, as Turkey was fast approaching local elections that had the potential to overturn the ruling AK Party’s grip on some key cities like Istanbul and Ankara. Just weeks before elections were to be held, audio and video clips suggesting corruption among top Turkish officials appeared on Twitter from anonymous parties.
That spurred Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to completely block access to Twitter throughout Turkey, igniting a political firestorm that caught the attention of free speech activists worldwide.
The events of the last few months raise questions about Twitter’s ability to deal with countries in which Internet censorship is commonplace, carried out by the dominant political parties of the moment. It’s also hardly the first time Twitter has been forced to keep its service out of specific countries; Twitter has been blocked for periods of time in Iran, South Korea and Egypt, among other places.
In situations like these, Twitter and other social platforms face a dilemma: How much time and energy is it worth for the company to push back against governments that have strict control over what types of social content flow throughout the country?
For Twitter, a company that prides itself on trumpeting user rights and free speech, there’s a lot at stake. It has gone out of its way to make country-specific compromises so as not to get completely banned, without truly compromising the company’s mission of being a “global town square.” The Country Withheld Content tool, which blocks certain tweets inside of specific countries but not to the rest of the world, is a prime example of this.
At the same time, Twitter can’t bend to every request. Turkey has insisted that Twitter set up a local office inside the country to deal with the government when the need arises — a demand that Twitter has no intention of giving in to. Thus far, Twitter has made it clear: The company sets up offices for economic reasons, not for political ones.
Twitter’s most significant problem is China, one of the world’s most populous countries and home to a robust economy. Like Facebook, Google and others, an entrance to the lucrative new market could spur the service and its business significantly.
Many Internet companies before Twitter, however, have tried and failed to maintain autonomy and company values while avoiding government censorship. (LinkedIn has caved; it has entered China, but at the cost of potentially agreeing to censor some content at the government’s request.) That solution is still TBD for many major Web companies.
As far as Turkey goes, the situation still isn’t resolved. The country-wide ban was eventually lifted — though only after Erdogan and his ruling AK party scored victories in the local elections. Right now Twitter’s Global Policy Chief lawyer Colin Crowell is in Turkey, continuing to talk with Turkish officials.
And while Twitter said in the future it plans to deal with Turkey through an intermediary local lawyer, it’s obvious that the government isn’t happy about it. It wants someone from Twitter on the ground inside Turkey — something that clearly won’t be happening (unless Turkey’s local Web advertising market suddenly explodes overnight).
I imagine this isn’t the end of Twitter’s small skirmishes in countries that rank low on the global Web economy pecking order. But perhaps if Turkey can save some face in negotiations with Crowell and company, it could be the end of at least one small headache — until the next one comes along.