How to bypass Twitter’s censorship in-country

Twitter’s recent announcement that it had implemented a system which would let it withhold particular tweets from specific countries has caused a storm, with many decrying the move as one that aids repressive regimes more easily control information flows within the country. As the Guardian notes,

The company has insisted that it will not use the gagging system in a blanket fashion, but would apply it on a case-by-case basis, as already happens when governments or organisations complain about individual tweets.

The new system, which can filter tweets on a country-by-country basis and has already been incorporated into the site’s output, will not change Twitter’s approach to freedom of expression, sources there indicated.

The Guardian article flags the central concern over the new system of filtering tweets.

However, activists in countries such as Syria or China might be concerned that they would be unable to see information they need to know.

Emphasis mine. There is, sans any need for additional circumvention tools or proxies, a very easy way even within a country a tweet, or set of tweets are blocked, to access the censored content. And it comes in the form of a largely forgotten medium.

RSS.

In around May 2011, Twitter, for whatever reason, stopped RSS feeds from its accounts. But as an article from thenextweb.com it is still very easy to subscribe to an RSS feed off any Twitter account, simply by typing in,

http://api.twitter.com/1/statuses/user_timeline.rss?screen_name={USERNAME}

So to access the RSS feed of @groundviews tweets, you would enter,

http://api.twitter.com/1/statuses/user_timeline.rss?screen_name=groundviews

The resulting RSS feed loads perfectly, and is completely free of Twitter’s censorship even in-country. Twitter’s censorship happens after a tweet is posted, which by definition means that it cannot, even if it could and wanted to, block RSS feeds off a particular account. And this means that even in-country, using any RSS reader, you can read content off any Twitter account without going through a Twitter client or visiting its website.

Further, through thenextweb.com article states that Google Reader was unable to recognise the RSS feed, with the Groundviews account, it worked fine for me.

Click for larger image.

With a modern browser, you can read this RSS feed within the browser, and if you’re on a Mac, subscribe to the feed within Apple Mail.

Click for larger image.

Twitter’s RSS API is robust, and provides feeds of new tweets almost instantaneously. For activists seeking to disseminate information via Twitter and risk running afoul of Twitter’s new filtering regime, they can still tweet updates knowing that it’s accessible via RSS in their country, even if viewing their accounts are blocked (in its announcement, Twitter does not say that user access to accounts will be blocked – just that access to the account or specific tweets will be withheld). Further, as Twitter clearly notes,

Q: Do you filter out certain Tweets before they appear on Twitter?
A: No. Our users now send a billion Tweets every four days—filtering is neither desirable nor realistic. 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.

This means that if and when content inconvenient to a repressive regime or powerful group is featured on Twitter, any resulting censorship of this content by Twitter will result in more eyeballs towards that account or tweet. Ergo, by requesting a tweet or Twitter account be taken down, those making the request open themselves up to scrutiny as well. In effect, this can serve to heighten, not reduce, the focus on repressive regimes and ham-fisted approaches to the control of dissent as well as give Twitter license to continue operating in a country that could otherwise have requested a far more detrimental carte blanche denial of access to its services.

Finally, the announcement by Twitter does not address retweets or modified tweets. If a tweet or account is taken down in a country, there is nothing in Twitter statement that prohibits others from re-tweeting the censored content or modifying the content, and posting it on their own Twitter accounts, which can be accessed in-country as well. In addition to the access by RSS, this also means that there is really no feasible way vital content by activists that needs to be heard, read, seen and engaged with can ever be completely censored off Twitter.

Update: My friend Jen Ziemke alerted me to this paragraph from an article published in The New York Times, which seems to suggest yet another way to bypass Twitter’s potential for censoring tweets and accounts.

The company identifies the locations of its users by looking at the Internet Protocol addresses of their computers or phones. But it also allows users to manually set their location or choose “worldwide.” Essentially that is a way to circumvent the blocking system entirely. A user in Syria can simply change her location setting to “worldwide” and see everything.

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