Twitter's censorship cheerleaders

When Twitter unveiled a new system last week to censor specific tweets in specific countries if the content violates local laws, many people reacted in anger. Some spent Saturday boycotting the service. Reporters Without Borders penned a letter denouncing the move. International microblogging celebrities such as Ai Weiwei and Mahmoud Salem took Twitter to task. "Thank you for the #censorship, #twitter, with love from the governments of #Syria, #Bahrain, #Iran, #Turkey, #China, #Saudi and friends," Swedish Twitter user Björn Nilsson wrote.

In fact, Nilsson wasn't so far off. Since Twitter's announcement, voices in countries where free speech is tightly restricted have rushed to the company's defense (others claim Twitter's new rules are actually good for free speech).

In Thailand, which has strict lèse majesté laws to punish those who criticize the royal family, the information and communication technology minister, Jeerawan Boonperm, called Twitter's new policy a "welcome development" and told the Bangkok Post that she would be following up with the company to discuss ways to collaborate, as her ministry already does with Google and Facebook. The Next Web points out that Thailand has leaned on Facebook and YouTube in the past to remove content that violates local laws.

In China, where Twitter is blocked, the state-run Global Times published an editorial by Xu Ming applauding Twitter, a "service reputed for its free-wheeling and libertarian ways in the Western world." (Some have interpreted Twitter's move as an effort to make inroads in China, though the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Jillian York told Foreign Policy on Friday that Twitter's new system may have more to do with the company setting up offices in Europe.) Twitter is acting shrewdly, Xu argued:

It is important for it to respect the cultures and ideas of different countries so as to blend into local environments harmoniously....

It is impossible to have boundless freedom, even on the Internet and even in countries that make freedom their main selling point.

The announcement of Twitter might have shown that it has already realized the fact and made a choice between being an idealistic political tool as many hope and following pragmatic commercial rules as a company.

In a move that may or may not be related to Twitter's new policy, the editor in chief of the Global Times, Hu Xijin, joined the microblogging service over the weekend, drawing a sharp response from Ai Weiwei. "Welcome to forbidden land," the dissident artist tweeted at Hu.

Thailand and China aren't alone. Anton Korobkov-Zemlyansky, a member of the Russian Public Chamber, a government oversight committee, told the state-run Voice of Russia that Twitter is just "trying to protect itself from possible scandals or lawsuits." He said those who criticize threats to free speech on the web are guided more by emotion than reason. "We are already living in a rather censored world," he explained, adding that "Russian laws are rather liberal" when it comes to censorship. The Moscow Times, meanwhile, quoted Russian activists condemning Twitter's decision or dismissing it as hollow. "Twitter is too fast," blogger Ilya Varlamov noted. "By the time the government would get around to blocking content, it would already be too old to matter."

Iran's PressTV, for its part, has subtly come out against Twitter and helped feed speculation that Saudi Arabia, Iran's archrival, helped shape the company's new policy. The state-run news outlet noted that Saudi Prince AlWaleed bin Talal recently invested $300 million in Twitter -- a transaction that "sparked outrage among rights activists who said it would eventually lead to the restriction of freedom of speech." Twitter's decision comes as "Saudi Arabian and Bahraini protesters heavily rely on the social networking site for their anti-government protests," PressTV observed, conventiently overlooking use of the service by Syrian activists. 

So there you have it. Thailand and China on one side of the free speech debate and Iran on the other, with Twitter improbably in the middle.  

Oli Scarff/Getty Images


The Election 2012 Weekly Report: Sunshine Policies

Gingrich slipping

Newt Gingrich charged into Florida this week with a head of steam, hoping to capitalize on his victory in South Carolina and attack competitor Mitt Romney on immigration and his somewhat exotic personal finances. Gingrich attacked Romney's suggestion that "self-deportation" could be a solution to illegal immigration: "You have to live in a world of Swiss bank accounts and Cayman Island accounts and automatic, you know, $20 million a year income with no work to have some fantasy this far from reality."

But Gingrich seemed to falter at a debate on Thursday night when pressed by both Romney and moderator Wolf Blitzer to defend his attacks. "Wouldn't it be nice if people didn't make accusations somewhere else that they weren't willing to defend here?" Romney said of the Swiss bank account jibe, continuing that he wouldn't apologize for his own success. (It remains to be seen how Romney will respond to new reports that he didn't fully disclose his income from the Swiss account.)

The other notable foreign-policy moment of the debate was a Palestinian-American Republican from Jacksonville informing the candidates that "we do exist." Both Gingrich and Santorum have questioned the validity of "Palestinian" as an identity duringthis year's campaign. 

Thanks to his weak performances and some seemingly off-topic policy proposals -- more on that in a moment -- Gingrich is losing some momentum ahead of Tuesday's key Florida primary. The latest RealClearPolitics average has Romney back in the lead by 7 percent.

The Little Havana Primary

As it generally does during Sunshine State campaigning, U.S. policy toward Cuba became a major topic of discussion this week. When asked during an interview with the Spanish-language television network Univision whether he would be willing to employ military force to overthrow the Castro regime, Gingrich responded, "Well I think at the moment you don't need to ... in that case you had an uprising. I would say bluntly, because I find it fascinating that Obama is intrigued with Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, but doesn't quite notice Cuba." He promised to use "all the tools that Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II, and Prime Minister [Margaret] Thatcher used to break the Soviet Empire."

Romney was similarly aggressive, saying, "I want to be the American president that is proud to be able to say that I was president at the time that we brought freedom back to the people of Cuba.... If I'm fortunate to become the next president of the United States it is my expectation that Fidel Castro will finally be taken off this planet." (In a bizarre exchange on Monday, the two candidates sparred over whether Fidel Castro would "meet his maker" or go to hell after he dies.)

Rick Santorum said the Obama administration's move to ease travel restriction on Cuba send "the exact wrong message at the exact wrong time" at Thursday's night's debate.   Only Ron Paul criticized the decades-old embargo on Cuba, saying the country is no longer a threat to U.S. security.

Fidel Castro himself weighed in on the contest this week, writing in his regular newspaper column, "The selection of a Republican candidate for the presidency of this globalized and expansive empire is -- and I mean this seriously -- the greatest competition of idiocy and ignorance that has ever been."

State of the Union

As expected, Tuesday night's State of the Union address was something of kickoff for Barack Obama's reelection campaign. The president made frequent reference to the successful killing of Osama bin Laden and the U.S. drawdown in Iraq. He made the case for his Iran policy, saying the regime is "more isolated than ever" and vowed to take no option off the table for preventing Tehran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. He also reiterated his "iron-clad commitment" to Israel's security and announced the creation of a new Trade Enforcement Unit to investigate unfair trade practices from countries like China.

Much of the speech seemed aimed at refuting the notion that he has embraced the reality of a diminished role for the United States in world affairs. "Anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn't know what they're talking about," he said to a standing ovation.

The president left for a three-day campaign trip of the American Southwest, which included a noticeably tense exchange with Arizona governor Jan Brewer.

Pipeline politics

The Obama administration's recent decision to deny a permit for the construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada is emerging as a major campaign issue. Rebutting charges that he is beholden to environmentalists, the president announced this week that his administration is opening up "around 38 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico for additional exploration and development."

Nonetheless, the GOP candidates are seizing on Keystone, with Gingrich attacking the decision as "totally, utterly irrational," Santorum arguing that it is "absolutely essential that we have as much domestic supply of oil, that we build the Keystone pipeline," and Romney saying the president's calls for energy independence are meaningless without increased domestic supplies like Keystone. 

Space Case

Of all this week's political developments, the best remembered may be Newt Gingrich's space policy speech, which was aimed at workers in Florida's struggling space corridor, but received widespread mockery in the media. "By the end of my second term, we will have the first permanent base on the moon, and it will be American," Gingrich said, saying the facility could be used for science, commercial purposes, and tourism -- setting the stage for an eventual mission to Mars. Gingrich made no apologies for his "grandiose" vision, comparing it to President John F. Kennedy's 1961 pledge to put a man on the moon.

What to watch for

It's Romney, Gingrich, Santorum, Paul, in that order, in polls ahead of Tuesday's Florida primary, then only four days until caucuses in Nevada and Maine. Paul has been campaigning in Maine, hoping to capitalize on his support among more libertarian, less socially conservative New England voters.

TV viewers can safely turn back to developments on American Idol for the next few weeks, as there's only one debate scheduled for all of February. That could be bad news for Gingrich if he comes up short in Florida.

The latest from FP

FP had all your AstroNewt news covered. Charles Homans looked at why the Republican establishment is dismissive of space policy, Joshua Keating asked if there's anything actually worth mining on the moon, and Uri Friedman investigated whether anyone has ever actually had sex in space.

Keating also looked back at Gingrich's foreign-policy views as speaker and why exactly Romney would want to keep his money in the Caymans.  

Josh Rogin reported on the president's unlikely new neoconservative foreign-policy muse.

Scott Clement discussed which foreign-policy issues are most likely to have an impact in the general election. 

Rosa Brooks argued that Obama needs a grand strategy.

FP bloggers from across the political spectrum dissected the State of the Union.

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