Twitter announced yesterday that it would begin selectively blocking Tweets in some countries.
"Starting today, we give ourselves the ability to reactively withhold content from users in a specific country -- while keeping it available in the rest of the world. We have also built in a way to communicate transparently to users when content is withheld, and why."
Twitter writes that it will withhold access to Tweets in certain countries "if we receive a valid and properly scoped request from an authorized entity". As an example of illegal material it names pro-Nazi content, which is outlawed in France and Germany.
The micro-blogging platform implies that it will not comply with all government requests to remove content. It states that, in some countries, the ideas about freedom of expression "differ so much from our ideas that we will not be able to exist there".
Until now, Twitter had to remove content from its entire network if it received a valid legal order to take it down in one country. This change in policy means that Twitter can block Tweets region by region.
Twitter writes that it will be transparent about the Tweets it censors by 1) telling a user if their Tweet has been withheld 2) letting other users know when content has been blocked 3) publishing requests to block content on chillingeffects.org.
There are loopholes in this transparency. Twitter promises: "upon receipt of requests to withhold content we will promptly notify affected users, unless we are legally prohibited from doing so".
Twitter's new policies are similar to those already practiced by Google. The Guardian writes that this is no coincidence; Twitter was advised by Alexander Macgillivray, who also helped Google put together its censorship policy.
The Guardian writes that the new announcement "is likely to raise fears that Twitter's commitment to free speech may be weakening". The paper notes that the San Francisco-based internet giant is aiming to reach an audience of 1 billion active global users and that "reaching that goal will require expanding into more countries, which will mean Twitter will be more likely to have to submit to laws that run counter to the free-expression protections guaranteed under the first amendment in the US."
Reuters writes that this decision "represents a significant departure from [Twitter's] tone just one year ago". In January 2011, Twitter published a post titled "The Tweets Must Flow", stating "we don't always agree with the things people choose to tweet, but we keep the information flowing irrespective of any view we may have about the content." However, at the time it also stated: "there are Tweets that we do remove, such as illegal Tweets and spam."
Twitter's decision to censor Tweets in certain countries has been condemned by many Twitter users. Reporters Without Borders has sent a letter to Twitter Executive Chairman Jack Dorsey stating that the internet giant's decision represents "nothing other than local level censorship carried out in cooperation with local authorities and in accordance with local legislation, which often violates international free speech standards."
The letter asks Jack Dorsey to reverse the decision "which restricts freedom of expression and runs counter to the movements opposed to censorship that have been linked to the Arab Spring, in which Twitter served as a sounding board."
Mark Gibbs at Forbes likewise condemns the decision, saying that Twitter has gone "over to the dark side".
Gibbs has practical objections about the way Twitter's system will work. Given the volume of Tweets, he writes, any filtering system will have to be automated. How can an algorithm determine if a Tweet is really expressing something illegal? How can an algorithm detect irony/sarcasm? Doesn't the fact that Twitter is filtering Tweets give them editorial responsibility and leave them vulnerable to litigation?
Others are more sympathetic with Twitter's decision. Jillian C. York, Director of International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation states that although "this is censorship" Twitter is not "above the law", and it is being more transparent about its policies than its rival Facebook. "I understand why people are angry, but this does not, in my view, represent a sea change in Twitter's policies," she writes.
NPR's Andy Carvin noted that repressive regimes can already block Twitter if they want to. "If Twitter does business in a country, then they're complied to follow local laws. That's all this is," he tweeted.
Sources: Twitter (1) (2) (3), chillingeffects.org, The Guardian, Reuters, Reporters Without Borders, Forbes, Poynter, Jillian C York