Around the world a specter is haunting governments — the specter of Twitter.
While many citizens of the world tweet without a care, the Twittersphere is not as unrestricted as it may appear.
In January 2012, Twitter announced that the global network would begin to restrict tweets in specific countries. Previously Twitter removed tweets that broke the network’s general rules, or if a government issued a formal request. But this new policy, critics say, enables governments to more easily block access to tweets and Twitter accounts deemed unsavory. (Interestingly, the U.S., Brazil, and Japan rank among the highest in recent information requests.)
Now, as Twitter goes public, the company will be under greater scrutiny in how it balances a commitment to freedom of expression — and local laws that have the opposite effect.
According to Freedom House’s 2013 Freedom on the Net report, internet freedom worldwide is in decline. The report found a general rise in broad online surveillance, laws that control web content, and the arrest of social media users.
“The trend is such that before it was mainly activists who were getting arrested, where as now we are seeing that it is more and more regular users that are posting their opinions, not realizing that what they say can get them in trouble,” Sanja Tatic Kelly of Freedom House told BuzzFeed.
The report found that while fewer countries were outright banning Twitter, governments were using other creative ways to restrict access and content, such as blocking Twitter handles by known activists or using statements made on Twitter against citizens in court. In many countries, governments own telecommunications infrastructure or have close ties to their owners, enabling them to more easily block and censor internet access. These factors are an important reminder of the regulations and international relations also shaping — and being shaped by — the future of Twitter.
Here are some of the world’s worst Twitter #haters:
China blocks Twitter, as well as other social media sites like Facebook, Google+, and Foursquare. Twitter was initially available in China, but then blocked in 2009 in advance of the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. In its absence, Weibo has become the go-to-source for online sharing — and the Chinese have gotten quite clever about communicating in creative ways on Weibo to avoid the censors.
Iran joins China in outright banning Twitter. About two million Iranians access Twitter using VPNs, and Twitter was integral in galvanizing support for Iran’s 2010 Green Revolution. As BuzzFeed has reported, the Iranian president and several key ministers have recently become quite Twitter savvy. (P.S. While Egypt and Pakistan no longer formally block Twitter, they have in the past found themselves among the top Twitter haters.)
3. North Korea
The majority of North Koreans do not have any access to the internet. A few academics and scientists reportedly can use a closed intranet, but still cannot access Western social media sites. In 2010 the government surprised the world by reportedly starting its own Twitter account. South Korea, in response, blocked the account from its own borders.
While Twitter is increasingly used to document government impunity, activists and journalists are at risk for being harassed and arrested for what they post. The Cuban government blocks Twitter, as well as other websites, in many places across the country, creating a highly restrictive tweeting space.
Burma has been one of the most repressive and underdeveloped telecommunication sectors, according to Freedom House. The Burmese government has initiated recent liberalizations, and most notably in August 2012 lefted a ban online censorship. But already existing repressive media laws, critics say, still continue to restrict freedom of speech, keeping Burma an unfriendly Twitter environment.
6. Saudi Arabia
Social media is an increasingly important tool for political protest in Saudi Arabia, and Twitter in particular has enabled social movements, like the fight for the right for women to drive. Nonetheless, in 2013 the government conducted an “experiment” in which it blocked Twitter. The government also censors individual social media pages, blocks accounts of political activists, and curbs freedom of expression by using tweets as grounds for charges like defamation and blasphemy.
Twitter has been a critical tool for disseminating information about the Bahraini revolution, which erupted in February 2011, and has simmered along since. Human Rights reports say that the government has arrested, detained, and tortured numerous Bahraini’s for Twitter posts that support the revolution and criticize the government. Here a protestor holds sign to protest the 2012 arrest of Nabeel Rajab, President of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights.
8. United Arab Emirates
Like in Bahrain, the UAE has invoked local laws against defamation and libel to arrest, jail, and block Twitter users. According to Freedom House, in 2013 the Telecommunication Regulatory Authority has blocked over five hundred search terms. In 2012, the government invoked a new cybercrime law to block 15 twitter and Facebook accounts for “defamation and abuse,” by sending letters to both companies outlining the alleged offenses.
While social media platforms like Twitter are available in Ethiopia, the government has blocked accounts and sites, and reportedly uses Twitter as a means to target opposition journalists and activists. In 2012, following reports about Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s health, state-run Ethiopian TV ran a special program on the need to censure social media in society.
More than 30 bloggers were imprisoned in Vietnam on April 13, 2013, according to Reporters without Borders, making Vietnam second country worldwide (behind China) for jailing Internet users. The internet repression trickles down to Twitter users, where users can be harassed and arrested for comments on their personal pages.
When the Gezi park protests broke out in May 2013, the Turkish media reportedly sidelined the affair, and the international community turned to Twitter for updates on events. As a result, the government arrested dozens of Turks for “spreading untrue information” on social media posts. Turkey also made headlines in 2012 when the famed pianist Fazil Say was charged for insulting religious values on Twitter. He appealed the charge — saying it was a joke.