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By 31 January 2012 | Categories: news

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After recently announcing the ability to censor tweets on a country-by-country basis, Twitter is facing a backlash from users who feel betrayed by what has been a modern day champion of free speech to date.

According to The Independent, the move has raised questions regarding Twitter’s apparent sacrifice of free-speech in order to expand their user base and profits. Twitter users pointed out that censorship does not seem to be in line with one of the company’s mantras, stating that it is "the free speech wing of the free speech party".

Reports Without Borders are also concerned, and have written to Twitter executive chairman Jack Dorsey, expressing their deep misgivings regarding the move. ”By finally choosing to align itself with the censors, Twitter is depriving cyber-dissidents in repressive countries of a crucial tool for information and organisation,” wrote Olivier Basille, director at Reporters Without Borders.

Up till now, Twitter was only able to block a tweet across its whole service, not per country.  In a post on the Twitter Blog, the popular social networking service claims the prerogative to “reactively withhold content from users in a specific country”, but also states that the same content will still be viewable by the rest of the world.

In effect, this means that tweets displaying Nazi insignia might be banned in France and Germany, but will not be censored outside those countries borders..

Twitter CEO reassures

Speaking at an AllThingsD conference, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo reiterated that the company can now adhere to local laws while leaving content up for as many people as possible.

He also noted that: “This is purely a reactive capability. We don’t proactively do anything.” On its blog, Twitter added that they do not filter out Tweets before these appear on Twitter, and instead would only act in response to “a valid and applicable legal request.”

 
How a block tweet will look like.

Blocked tweets will show which country banned it (see image above), while the offending tweet will also be mentioned on the Chilling Effects website, along with providing the reasons why this tweet was banned.   

One interesting outcome of this approach is that it could lead users to being able to monitor censorship on a country specific basis. Talking to Techworld, Craig Newman, an attorney at the New York law firm Richards Kibbe & Orbe, believes that Twitter’s new policy could create a window into censorship in other countries.

Response

Unfortunately from a public relations perspective, Chinese state-run newspaper the Global Times also welcomed Twitter’s move, stating in a recent editorial: “To some extent, it is a necessary step in the evolution of Twitter.” They also claimed that Twitter has now made the choice between being an “idealistic political tool” and “following pragmatic commercial rules as a company”. China currently blocks Twitter.

To the point

Knowing its importance in recent events, such as the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, Twitter should have known that it is dealing with a very hot potato, since any policy regarding censorship rightly raises suspicion.

But Twitter’s new ability could actually be a good move. The ability to track banned tweets on Chilling Effects means that there is a record kept of censorship, while tweets will still be seen outside the country it has been banned in. And maybe a little bit of Twitter is better than no Twitter at all, particularly as a small wave of communication can sometimes lead to a larger tsunami.

But it also raises immediate concerns – what if the country that banned the tweet also wants policies in place regarding the banning of tweets internationally? And what if the country does not agree with Twitter’s postings to Chilling Effects?

We can only hope that Twitter moves towards the moral high-ground, rather than tumbles down the slippery slope of censorship.

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