Concern over Twitter's country-by-country censorship ability


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The Independent US

Twitter is facing a backlash from its users after the website said it had the technology to censor tweets on a country by country basis.

The revelation has sparked criticism that the fast-growing short messaging site is departing from its free-speech principles as its looks for ways to further its global footprint and profits.

In a statement published online the San Francisco-based company told users that it could now “reactively withhold content from users in a specific country.” Twitter defended the technology as a way of ensuring the maximum possible audience could view its content whilst adhering to specific laws in different countries.  

Previously when Twitter was forced to delete a tweet it would be taken down worldwide. Now individual tweets can be blocked in specific countries with Twitter promising to flag when a comment is taken offline.

An example Twitter gave was Germany where glorification of Nazism or publishing Hitler’s Mein Kampf, for example, is illegal. If a tweet broke German law, Twitter could block users in Germany from reading the tweet but continue to allow others worldwide to see it.

“We haven't yet used this ability,” the statement from Twitter read. “But if and when we are required to withhold a tweet in a specific country, we will attempt to let the user know, and we will clearly mark when the content has been withheld.”

Free speech advocates expressed concerns that the new technology would encourage repressive governments to insist that Twitter take down critical content especially given the website’s role in helping to organise mass protests during last year’s Arab Spring.

“Whilst censoring tweets that break the law in individual countries is preferable to taking down the content altogether, we’re going to be monitoring this very closely to ensure that Twitter’s commitment to free speech isn’t watered down,” said Mike Harris, head of advocacy at Index on Censorship.

The move is part of a fine line that Twitter has to tread as it attempts to expand into new countries and further its revenue sources. Venture capitalists – including most recently the Saudi prince Alwaleed bin Talal – have invested millions in the company and expect to see their largesse returned handsomely. For Twitter to make money it therefore needs to expand its audience based – currently around the 100 million mark – and find ways of introducing adverts that don’t put people off using the website.

Twitter users were quick to point out yesterday that the company’s new willingness to consider censoring tweets in a country specific capacity is in stark contrast to its previously strong stance on protecting free speech.

In October last year chief executive Dick Costolo described his country’s mantra as being “the free speech wing of the free speech party”. He was speaking shortly after the riots on Britain where Twitter had resisted pressure to take offline some of the tweets used by rioters to coordinate their looting. He argued that Twitter users had actually helped create a clearer picture of the riots by quickly debunking myths in real time.

The company has also fought legal battles in the United States to keep user details out of the hands of investigators who are trying to bring charges against Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and some of those he communicated with.

However Twitter’s more formalised approach to deleting tweets on a country specific basis is not unusual. Google, eBay, Yahoo and Facebook all have systems in place that allow them to delete certain information in one country whilst keeping it online for the rest of the world to see.