Twitter on Thursday raised the ire of some users by announcing a fairly radical shift in policy: The company can “withhold content from users in a specific country — while keeping it available in the rest of the world,” as Twitter explained in a blog post.
The technical details of the process are somewhat arcane, but Danny Sullivan has a great rundown at MarketingLand. In essence, here’s what’s changed:
Prior to the new policy, Twitter had already been regularly removing tweets from appearing to any user globally based on complaints under the U.S. Digital Millennium Copyright Act (as Twitter is a U.S.-based company, it has to comply first and foremost with U.S. laws).
The company says it will continue to do this, but now, if requested to remove a tweet or tweets under the laws of another country in which it operates, Twitter will do so. However, that tweet will only be removed from users in that specific country — the tweet, if public, will still appear to all other users throughout the rest of the world.
Twitter further adds that it has not “yet used this ability, 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.”
Sullivan obtained a screenshot of the notice from Twitter, which appears as a banner with the text “Tweet Withheld. This tweet from @username has been withheld in: Country. Learn more.”
Twitter has also set up a new page on the website Chilling Effects to inform the world of every takedown of a tweet it makes. Chilling Effects is a collaborative effort to highlight the misuse of IP law to silence free speech online, a partnership including Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society and the Electronic Frontier Foundation and eight other big law schools.
Still, those measures to keep users informed on the tweet removal policy on a case-by-case basis haven’t stopped escalating cries of “censorship!” around the Web.
“If @Twitter censors, I’ll quit Twitter immediately,” tweeted the Chinese artist-activist Ai Weiwei.
Interestingly, we haven’t seen anyone else threatening to delete their accounts on that day, which would presumably be the ultimate expression of dissatisfaction.
“Dear @Twitter, You’re going to censor your own site and assist with oppression around the globe? #TwitterCensored #BloodOnHands,” another particularly accusatory tweet read.
Others are simply trying to get #TwitterCensored and/or #TwitterBlackout to be among the top “Trending Terms” listed on the website. (They weren’t trending worldwide or in the U.S. at the time of this posting…)
Several users suggested that the change was a result of Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal’s $300 million investment in Twitter in December 2011, giving him a 3 percent stake in the company. (Although in that transaction, Alwaleed did not buy new shares in Twitter, but re-purchased them from previous investors in a secondary, according to Fortune.)
The Saudi Arabian government has previously been accused of censoring specific activists’ Twitter pages to suppress dissent.
But as Twitter hasn’t actually implemented the policy yet, it’s tough to say for certain exactly how it will play out.
The concern, of course, is that Twitter will begin censoring tweets based on frivolous local laws or requests from government authorities, or, more insidiously, to prevent mass protests and insurrections such as the so-called “Arab Spring” uprisings throughout the Middle East.
That line of thought misses the point that Twitter won’t yank the tweets from the Web entirely, only from the country in which the takedown order has been issued. Everyone else around the world can still see the tweet. In the case of activists trying to communicate with the outside world about an uprising, the flow of information would seem to remain unimpeded.
Plus, the authorities could always just shut off the Internet entirely like Mubarak did during the revolution in Egypt or Qaddafi did in Libya. Or, set up their own severely firewalled Internet, as in the case of China (where Twitter is banned), or a separate intranet entirely, as Iran is reportedly preparing to launch. Or, simply flood Twitter with bots tweeting out pro-government messages to drown out dissent, as was allegedly the case during recent protests in Russia.
More to the point, it’s worth noting that Twitter has repeatedly gone out of its way to inform users of government probes into their Twitter account information, even violating the requests of law agencies to keep those probes secret from the users, which is more than can be said of either Google or Facebook.
Google says it is its “policy to notify users before turning over their data whenever possible and legally permissible,” and “Google will contact the primary account administrator in the event content is taken down.”
Google also posts a more broad-based report online every year called the “Transparency Report,” in which the company lists a number of takedown notices it received from governments around the world and states whether or not it has complied with them. But that list is anonymous and as Google admits, isn’t the whole picture, coming with “certain limitations.”
But the fact that Twitter has been fairly transparent about its change and is going out of its way to inform users of all content takedown notices may be why several prominent online activists aren’t joining in the Twitter-bashing at this time, as Tech President pointed out.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which of course has a stake in the new Twitter policy, working with the Chilling Effects organization, was sanguine about the change. As EFF’s Jillian C. York, director of the company’s international freedom of expression division, wrote on her personal blog:
“I understand why people are angry, but this does not, in my view, represent a sea change in Twitter’s policies. Twitter has previously taken down content-for DMCA requests, at least-and will no doubt continue to face requests in the future. I believe that the company is doing its best in a tough situation…and I’ll be the first to raise hell if they screw up.”
So despite all the Twitter-hate, it’s worth keeping in mind that, at least for now, the company is at least attempting to follow through on the lofty ambitions of its founders to “lower the barrier to activism,” and “let the tweets flow,” while expanding its business to other countries.