It was a hard blow when Twitter was banned in China, back in 2009. The company lost access to a pool of hundreds of millions of potential users who are even to this day, banned from tweeting at the rest of the world. However, there are still millions who are braving their government’s displeasure by continuing to use the micro-blogging platform. Well, for the first time, the company is shedding some light on exactly how many.
As per data released by a Twitter employee — who divested himself of the information on the condition of having his identity kept hidden — almost 10 million people are using VPN services to continue bypassing government restrictions and using Twitter. (KPOP definitely has a dedicated Twitter fanbase in China!! :P)
Before we go any further and delve into discussing the implications of this userbase, let us warn you that it may either be accurate or it may be completely off the mark. The figure is just an unofficial something that is used in Twitter’s corridors. Legally ofcourse, the company should be as absent from China as democracy. But thankfully, there are plenty of VPNs.
Although VPNs create their own set of problems. As you are probably aware of, VPNs operate by tricking the firewall into thinking that the request is originating from another country. So that makes it very hard to tell if a request that is coming in from Sri Lanka isn’t someone in China who is trying to use Twitter or something else, using VPN.
10 million or 20 though, there is no denying the fact that the ban hurt Twitter’s business. The company only has around 300 million users as compared to the over 600 million Internet using folks in China. Banning the company is certain to have kept it from tens of millions of additional customers.
Twitter could have avoided the situation by capitulating to the state policing that websites must submit to, before they are allowed to run in the country. Linkedin is an example of a social networking platform that did and is happily available inside the country, VPN free. But then, Linkedin is a website for professionals, so there isn’t likely to be much controversial content over there.
Twitter though, is a different matter. A lot of people who use it include diplomats, activists and people who may be critical of the regime for one reason or the other. As such, state run policing would have destroyed the point. Meanwhile, the fact that there are at least 10 million Chinese — probably more, since many may use VPNs but not twitter — who are attempting to reach beyond the state imposed censorship and discover stuff on their own is certainly refreshing.
Charlie Smith, one of the pseudonymous founders of anti-censorship group Great Fire seemed to agree when he told TechCrunch,
If there are 10 million Chinese on Twitter that is great news. Twitter is one of the last great bastions of relatively free speech. When was the last time 10 million Chinese could freely say what they feel, on any platform, without fear of reprisal?
Well…maybe before Genghis Khan. The Chinese state takes so much interest in social networking that you would almost think that WeChat was state-owned and the government was trying to crush competition. Well, crushing is about the right word but it is the voice of those who are at an disagreement with the regime that the government appears to be seeking to snuff.
Meanwhile, Twitter has two options — capitulate to the demands of the regime or continue losing business to the likes of WeChat. While neither of them are particularly savory, Twitter has already shown that it is not willing to sacrifice the freedom of expression it offers through its 140 character messages. The company has discovered other ways of making money off China instead, including offering companies and state run agencies the chance to advertise through its platform.