Mar 11, 2020 - World

In letter to Congress, UN aviation agency justifies Twitter blocks

Three blue birds representing Twitter flying past a concrete block.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

After intense criticism from the U.S. government, the United Nations' International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) is doubling down on its policy of blocking Twitter accounts that criticize its policy of excluding Taiwan from membership, according to a letter viewed by Axios.

Why it matters: ICAO's attempts to suppress criticism on an issue that China's leaders consider sensitive have raised fears that the organization is under Beijing's sway.

The big picture: China views Taiwan as part of its sovereign territory and has worked for decades to isolate it diplomatically and to shut it out of membership in international organizations like the United Nations.

What's happening: In late January, as the coronavirus had begun to spread in Asia, ICAO came under fire for blocking Twitter accounts belonging to researchers, analysts and congressional staffers who said ICAO should reconsider its exclusion of Taiwan.

  • The ICAO Twitter account blocked critics who argued that aviation information-sharing is crucial during an international public health crisis, making Taiwan's exclusion from ICAO a public health risk.
  • The State Department issued a statement on Feb. 1 criticizing the ICAO and demanding it no longer block critics on Twitter.
  • In early February, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs sent a letter to ICAO expressing opposition to its exclusion of Taiwan and its blocking of Taiwan-related discussion on Twitter.

The ICAO's letter responding to Congress, dated Feb. 11 and signed by Salvatore Sciacchitano, president of the ICAO Council, doubled down on the agency's new social media guidelines.

What they're saying: The letter underscored ICAO's commitment to freedom of expression and the "healthy exchange of information."

  • "However, as recent world events have well-demonstrated, reducing the spread of inaccurate or intentionally misleading information via social media is a major challenge," the letter continued. (It was the only place where the letter appeared to engage with the question of blocking people on Twitter.)
  • ICAO social media staff aim to promote "constructive discourse," the letter stated.
  • "Acknowledging that the implementation of this Policy in these specific occurrences has generated some misinterpretation, I wish to inform you that I have asked the Secretary General to review its full alignment with the UN Social Media Policies and Practices," the letter added.

The expert take: "I don’t think they’ve really addressed the question here," Anthony Arend, a professor of government and foreign service at Georgetown University, told Axios. "It comes down to whether the ICAO can block people who are talking about whatever they are talking about."

  • "As an international organization, they’re supposed to be serving all the people. This doesn’t seem like a reasonable approach," said Arend.

Go deeper: UN aviation agency blocks critics of Taiwan policy on Twitter

Go deeper