Tech issues: Twitter and censorship; Coursera banned in Minnesota; Google vs. newspapers

Technological issues, the free-speech and/or what-are-they-thinking edition:

• It’s been a busy week for Twitter‘s censors: The microblogging service is deleting anti-Semitic posts after a French Jewish group’s threatened lawsuit, and it has shut down a neo-Nazi group’s account in Germany.

Twitter, the San Francisco company that has cultivated an image as a defender of free speech and privacy, earlier this year said it would begin censoring tweets when needed to comply with different countries’ laws. (See On the censor ship: Twitter policy…) The news about the deletion of anti-Semitic posts comes a day after the shutdown of the neo-Nazi group’s account in Germany, which the company said was the first time it used its “country withheld content” function. Twitter said the account is being blocked only in Germany but is accessible elsewhere, which brings to mind the recent controversy over an inflammatory anti-Islam video that was uploaded to YouTube. After deadly protests, Google blocked it  only in certain countries. (See Google, free speech and the anti-Islam video.)

• Free online classes from Coursera, the Mountain View-based startup? The state of Minnesota says no thanks. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that Coursera received a letter from the state saying Minnesota law does not allow institutions to offer classes to Minnesotans unless they get permission from the state. It is, according to a policy analyst for the state’s Office of Higher Education’s email to the Chronicle, “designed to provide consumer protection for students.” Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller told the Chronicle she thinks the law applies to online degrees. Coursera does not offer online degrees, only online courses. For free. From top universities around the world. To anyone. But apparently Minnesotans need protection from free online education and are supposed to opt out — according to a law that seems unenforceable, unless Coursera shuts off access to just the state of Minnesota.

• And finally, Google and its complicated relationship with newspapers is in the news again. It’s the same old story. Newspapers are struggling in the era of online news, and Google — which links to news stories, and has been shown to be the top referrer of online traffic to U.S. news sites — has been an easy scapegoat.

First, more than 150 Brazilian newspapers reportedly have left Google News because they want the search giant to pay them when it links to their content. Carlos Fernando Lindenberg Neto, president of the National Association of Newspapers in Brazil, told the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas: “By providing the first few lines of our stories to Internet users, the service reduces the changes that they will look at the entire story in our web sites.”

And Google has threatened to exclude French news sites from its search results to protest a proposed law that would require Google to pay for content, according to the BBC. The Wall Street Journal points out that a similar law is being considered in Germany. The idea would “threaten the existence” of Google, the search giant has said.


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  • Jeff

    As a resident of MN, this is no surprise. The education cartel obviously sees this as a threat to their power.

  • Free speech is so complicated. The experts of anti-semitism and other no-nos realize you can’t just scan for so-called hate with automation tools – you need to read the context to see if they’re merely “anti-zionist” or truly “anti-Jewish”. So I have to wonder, when many people are reading this stuff and do come across certifiable hate speech, why it isn’t referenced with examples when action is contemplated to suppress it? Is it because governments themselves (i.e. our leaders) are so deeply invested in their own disinformation schemes that we have to shy away from this stuff out of sheer embarrassment?