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What Would it Take to Get Twitter Unblocked in China?

January 29, 2012

Twitter sent its digital street cred tumbling on Thursday night when it announced that it would being selectively censoring content as a way to enter countries with “different ideas” about freedom of expression. Though Twitter has never made promises along the lines of Google’s “Don’t Be Evil,” the move nevertheless comes as a surprise for a company that took pride in helping grease the wheels of last year’s Arab Spring uprisings.

In China, where Twitter is blocked but still accessible to those with the technical know-how to skirt the country’s Web filters, the revelation seems to have hit particularly hard.

Among the first to comment on the announcement was Wen Yunchao, one of many Chinese dissidents who’ve embraced Twitter as an uncensored alternative to China’s own heavily managed microblogging services:

Oh no! @twitter says going to start censoring tweets in certain countries. Pls RT!… 通过@demandprogress

It didn’t take long for speculation to spread that Twitter had announced the change because it planned to make a play for the China market. A number of Chinese users promptly declared their intention boycott the service. Among those leveling the boycott threat was activist artist Ai Weiwei, who wrote in a characteristically pithy post, “If Twitter starts censoring, I’ll stop tweeting”:

推若审查,我即停推。 RT @wenyunchao: @aiww 商人在商言商,道这东东,能像谷歌那样最好,不能也不能强求。

But how likely is it that Twitter’s proposed changes are aimed at earning access to the world’s largest population of Internet users?

“Unlikely” says the answer from Beijing- based investor and Internet watcher Bill Bishop.

As Mr. Bishop notes, a large part of the speculation that Twitter might be getting ready to kow-tow to China’s censors stems from Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey’s visit to Shanghai earlier this month, during which he complained about not being able to read his tweets. That trip came almost exactly a year after the founder of another social-media site banned in China, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, visited Beijing amid talk of trying to tap the Chinese market.

But for all the salivating over China’s potential in board rooms across Silicon Valley, Mr. Bishop says Twitter would have to be “incredibly naive” to think they could wedge their way into the country.

“It would be stupidity,” he says. “One, I don’t think the government would go for it. And two, the market is already saturated.”

Twitter did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The key issue, Mr. Bishop says, is whether or not the government would be able to trust Twitter. One sign that Twitter isn’t likely to do what it takes to earn that trust is its plan to partner with Chilling Effects, an Internet freedom advocacy website, to publish government take-down notices — a problematic strategy in a country where banned keywords are treated like state secrets.

Even if Twitter were somehow able to get in Beijing’s good graces, Mr. Bishop says, it would have almost no shot at competing with home-grown “weibo” microblogging products from Sina and Tencent that are already well-established and offer more features. “Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo are better products,” he says. “Twitter’s only competitive advantage here is freedom of speech. Once you start censoring, what do you have left to offer?”

Indeed, Mr. Dorsey himself quashed the idea of Twitter being able to break into China in an interview in Hong Kong in October in which he said his company “just can’t compete” in China “and that’s not up to us to change.”

In developing the ability to censor tweets by region, Twitter more likely has different markets in mind. The only countries mentioned by name in the blog post announcing the new policy were France and Germany, both of which, the post notes, ban pro-Nazi content. How to handle that ban is a dilemma that Yahoo, Google and Facebook have all struggled with in Germany.

Mr. Dorsey visited Germany earlier this week to announce his desire to hire a team there.

Twitter’s announcement also acknowledges there are some countries with severe restrictions on speech where the company simply cannot exist.

That’s not to say Twitter’s latest move won’t have an impact on China. Implausible as it may be for the company to establish itself in the country, Mr. Bishop notes, its embrace of content filtering could aid Beijing in making the argument that the Internet is a space in need of censorship.

– Josh Chin. Follow him on Twitter @joshchin.

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