Twitter falters in Turkey, Pakistan blocks Wikipedia, and Tibetans stare down a new cyberlaw

Ellery Roberts Biddle

 

Natural disasters almost always have reverberations in digital space, and the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that shook Turkey and northern Syria on Monday was no exception. The quake leveled entire city blocks, injured tens of thousands and has killed more than 15,000 people so far. Tremors were still being felt as I drafted this edition. It caused internet outages across the region, and as of yesterday, most internet providers in Turkey had blocked Twitter. This is a big deal, since Twitter can often play a vital role in disaster relief. But right now, both Turkish authorities and Elon Musk seem to be standing in its way. More on this below.

China’s spy balloons have captured more than their share of headlines this week, but I’m interested in catching up on Tibet, where new amendments to the autonomous region’s cyberlaw recently went into effect. Little has been written about it in English so far, but RFA ran a story explaining that the law criminalizes online activities (such as social media posts) by “anyone seen to be posing a threat to national security and public interest, deemed to be anti-socialist, or seen as engaging in separatism by maintaining any association with Tibetan independence groups or individuals.” Gonpo Dhondup, President of Tibetan Youth Congress, told RFA that “the law is also a strategic move by the Chinese government to disconnect Tibetans inside Tibet [from] those in exile.”

Wikipedia is now completely blocked in Pakistan, the fifth most populous country in the world, on grounds that there is “blasphemous” content in some of its articles, though public documentation about the ban doesn’t offer specifics. I caught up with Farieha Aziz, leader of the tech law advocacy group Bolo Bhi, who said this is the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority’s way of “flexing its muscles” as the country approaches its next major election. Aside from the obvious barrier this puts between people and an enormous information resource, the ban has economic implications too. Aziz noted that major voices in Pakistan’s tech industry were quick to speak out. “When the [telecommunication authority] takes these ad hoc measures, people don’t want to invest in the tech sector, because it shows that anything can be shut down at any time, for any reason.”

TURKEY TAKES TWITTER OFFLINE

When crisis strikes, people turn to social media — some to get news updates, others to report what they’re seeing, or to call for help. 

“It is the first thing people did,” Georgia State University computer scientist Ugur Kursuncu said to me the day after the quake. “People just went to Twitter, and they were tweeting under the rubble, providing their location and addresses, and trying to reach other people, and just waiting to be rescued.”

Kursuncu and researchers like him are poised to pull tens of thousands of tweets in a situation like this, using special technology that allows third parties to communicate with Twitter’s systems — an open API, in industry terms. This technology has myriad uses, from the commercial to the absurd — see @possumeveryhour. But in broadscale public emergencies in the past, it has been a game-changer, allowing researchers to gather tweets, process the data they contain, and then pass it to rescue teams who can actually help people in need. It has been used to help coordinate rescue efforts from Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines to flood relief efforts in southern India, and beyond.

But there are two serious barriers to all this right now. First and foremost, the site was officially inaccessible for most people starting on Wednesday, unless they had access to a VPN. But to make matters worse, Twitter’s once-open API — the technical system that makes these data-driven relief efforts possible — is not open anymore, thanks to the Musk regime. Twitter announced a few days ago plans to limit access to its API, and to start charging hefty fees for researchers who want to tap into it. Right now, the system is only partially functioning, and giving tech-savvy folks access to just a few hundred tweets per day. 

In a large-scale disaster where millions of people are affected, “that is not very useful,” Kursuncu said. “You’re going to miss out on a lot of tweets and a lot of people. That is the biggest problem that can threaten the lives of people that could be rescued otherwise.” 

Despite the change, Kursuncu’s colleagues were able to craft a workaround on Monday that allowed them to collect tweets from the region over the course of 12 hours. They collected 30,000 tweets that offered some information about people in need of help. This dwarfed the 1,400 entries that relief workers received in an online form that was hastily set up in the quake’s immediate aftermath. The numbers speak for themselves — clearly, Twitter could play a key role in rescue efforts, if Musk and Turkish authorities were willing to get out of the way.

Musk says he’s locking down these resources as part of his campaign against malicious bots (though I’m pretty sure hardcore bot networks will be happy to cough up the access fees) but the public interest implications of the change go far beyond the bot threat. Systems like this have become part of the infrastructure that aid organizations use to respond to public health and safety crises. Yet they are (and always were) under the control of a private company. It was precarious before, but at least in extreme situations, there was some assurance that Twitter would act in good faith and help facilitate relief efforts. Now even this seems like a distant dream.

A core group of researchers and journalists who use Twitter’s data in their work are mobilizing to change this, chiefly through the Coalition for Independent Technology Research. Here’s their open letter about the Twitter API lockdown, published last week.