Twitter has responded to our questions about its new policy to “withhold” certain tweets on a country-by-country basis with some fascinating answers that make the accusations of “mass censorship” from some users and writers seem hyperbolic.
To recap: Twitter on Thursday posted an entry on its official company blog explaining that it had overcome the technical hurdles to and would begin a new policy of “withholding” certain tweets — effectively censoring them — in certain countries based on legal requests in those countries.
However, Twitter explained quite clearly in its original post that it would “reactively withhold content from users in a specific country — while keeping it available in the rest of the world.”
Translation: Twitter isn’t imposing any sort of automated filtering system to wipe out tweets in a mass campaign of censorship. The “withholding” is reactive, not proactive. The company will only block specific tweets after some governmental authority or law enforcement complains about them and has legal grounds to ask for them to be taken down.
Even then, a tweet will only be removed from view in the specific country where the request originated — the rest of the world will still be able to view the tweet. Further, Twitter will actually inform a user of the takedown notice and begin posting all of them on a webpage at the online freedom advocacy group Chilling Effects.
But after users and some web writers complained that Twitter was ushering in a new era of censorship, the company updated its blog on Friday in an effort to answer some of the most frequently asked questions about its new policy.
In the update, Twitter, explains “As we do today, we will evaluate each request before taking any action. Any content we do withhold in response to such a request is clearly identified to users in that country as being withheld. And we are now able to make that content available to users in the rest of the world.”
Indeed, prior to the new policy, Twitter would just remove tweets from the website across the entire world.
But in an exclusive interview with TPM, the company elaborated in even more detail exactly what it will and won’t do under its new policy. Here’s what we learned from Twitter:
Twitter Won’t Ever Censor Re-Tweets, @Replies, or Quoted Tweets.
“The policy is specific to the originating Tweet or account in question,” a Twitter spokesperson told TPM. That means that a blocked user’s tweet could still be visible even throughout the country where it’s been blocked, if one of their followers simply “re-tweeted” the tweet — adding it to their own Twitter stream — or copied and pasted the text into a new tweet. Of course, that would have to happen before the tweet was taken down.
Even more intriguing though, the loophole would theoretically allow someone outside the country where the tweet was blocked to retweet it to the world. Then someone inside the country that had banned that weet could retweet the foreigner’s tweet, bringing it back into the country, as it would originated from abroad and would thus not be susceptible to the takedown notice!
Twitter is available basically all over the world
Asked how many countries Twitter is currently available in, a Twitter spokesperson told TPM: “We’re available anywhere people have Internet access. There are a few places where we may be blocked, like China. The best guide to where we may be blocked currently is on Herdict.org.” Herdict is an independent website set up by the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University which monitors popular websites around the world and provides country-specific, real-time reports on whether those websites are accessible to users by country. The Berkman Center is also the founding organization behind the Chilling Effects website where Twitter has pledged to post all of its takedown notices from around the globe.
The only country that blocks Twitter entirely for all time is China, according to the company. However, the company refused to comment on where it could be expanding its offices in 2012, which would presumably put it under greater pressure from local authorities in other countries.
Twitter can block entire accounts too
The company stated as much on its policy webpage, writing, “if you see a grayed-out user in your timeline or elsewhere on Twitter, access to that particular account has been withheld in your country.” However, that account isn’t blocked to the account holder. As Twitter’s spokesperson told TPM: “The user can still use their account.” Meaning, that person, even if an American and blocked in America, could still access their account and tweet out to the rest of the world.
Twitter will unblock content if a user successfully challenges it in his or her country’s legal system
This is a big one: Twitter had already stated in its user guidance that when a user’s tweet or account is withheld, “It is then up to the user to decide whether they would prefer to leave the content online, challenge the underlying request, or, if they choose, to delete a Tweet or deactivate their account.” But the company confirmed to TPM that if a user manages to obtain a court order to overturn whatever official request required the tweet or account from being blocked in the first place, Twitter will immediately restore it.
Again, this may be why — for all the reflexive hysteria online to the change — some online activists are actually praising Twitter for being much more transparent and frankly progressive when it comes to corporate user responsibility. As sociology professor Zeynep Tufekci wrote in a tweet: “It’s weird for me to defend a company so hard but If I were a govt I’d see [Twitter’s] policy as the middle finger.” Tufecki elaborates in a blog post on the subject entitled “Why Twitter’s new policy is helpful for free-speech advocates.”