Twitter CEO: We Are Not Going to Go to China

Matt Cover | August 14, 2012 | 12:31pm EDT
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Twitter CEO Dick Costolo. (AP Photo)

( – Twitter CEO Dick Costolo said that his company will not do business in China because the Communist government there would require them to cooperate in censoring speech.

As an example of the Chinese government's attack on freedom of speech, Costolo cited a woman who was sentenced to a year in a labor camp for retweeting a joke.

“We remain blocked in Iran and China," Costolo said on Aug. 4 at the Aspen Institute's Summer Gala in Aspen, Colo.

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When asked what Twitter will do to push back in China, Costolo said, “We’re not going to go there in the way that we would have to go into that country right now, which means to provide access to the government censors and allow them to censor all the tweets they want to censor before they go out to the public.

“So, we’re not going to do that,” he said. "And I would imagine with the new government coming in it will be, in fact, much worse for a period of time. It will be worse for the companies that are already there that have Twitter-like clones that they've built there."

To underscore the severe nature of China's censorship, Costolo pointed to the 2010 case of a woman who retweeted a joke.

“People, I don’t think, maybe, understand the magnitude of how hard the government of China will come down on even simple sarcasm,” Costolo said. “This woman in China who was accessing Twitter--via, basically, via a virtual private network in [South] Korea--retweeted a sarcastic joke that someone made about a local Chinese official.

“All she did was hit the ‘retweet’ button in Twitter and she was sent to a labor camp for a year,” said Costolo.

"There is example after example of what you would think of here as the tiniest remark that's met with what you can only consider cruel punishment," he said.

The woman, Chinese activist Cheng Jianping, was arrested on her wedding day for retweeting a joke made by her fiancé about anti-Japan protesters, according to a November 2010 story in the Washington Post.

In January, Twitter announced that it would begin deleting certain posts if a national government asked them to do so.

“Starting today, we give ourselves the ability to reactively withhold content from users in a specific country--while keeping it available in the rest of the world. We have also built in a way to communicate transparently to users when content is withheld, and why,” the company posted January 26 on its blog.

However, the company stated that it would only block content after a government makes the case that the content is illegal in that specific country.

“With this new feature, we are going to be reactive only: that is, we will withhold specific content only when required to do so in response to what we believe to be a valid and applicable legal request,” stated the company.

Twitter cited laws in France and Germany that outlaw expression of Nazi ideology.

“As we continue to grow internationally, we will enter countries that have different ideas about the contours of freedom of expression,” stated the company.  “Some differ so much from our ideas that we will not be able to exist there. Others are similar but, for historical or cultural reasons, restrict certain types of content, such as France or Germany, which ban pro-Nazi content.”

Twitter is currently blocked in China because it refuses to allow the Chinese government to censor what users say.

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