Backlash After Twitter Says May Censor Messages By Country

Posted January 27th, 2012 at 12:45 pm (UTC-5)
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Popular microblogging service Twitter is facing criticism after announcing it now has the ability to censor posts, or “tweets,” on a country-by-country basis.

Media rights group Reporters Without Borders on Friday sent a letter to the company expressing what it called its “deep concern.” The organization's Washington director, Delphine Halgand , says the new policy violates freedom of expression.

“Twitter could delete some tweets or block some tweets or accounts according to the criteria of different governments. So and, it's like, freedom of expression doesn't depend on criteria of government. This is a fundamental principle which is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

Halgand says people in countries experiencing anti-government movements and aspirations for democracy could suffer the most.

“We saw that during the Arab Spring and during the uprising and the crackdowns, Twitter was playing a huge role, and if now, the government will be able to just call Twitter to say, 'Hey, can you just block this cyberdissident's account,' can you imagine how the uprising could have been different, if [that] was the case?”

Twitter users also expressed concern, with some vowing to take part Saturday in what they called a Twitter Blackout — no tweeting for a day.

The U.S.-based company announced on its blog this week that it has not yet used the removal ability, but that if it does, a notice will appear for the user saying a Twitter message has been withheld to comply with the law of the country where the user is operating.

Previously, any content Twitter deleted would be erased worldwide. Twitter says with its new method, a tweet restricted in a specific country still will be available to the rest of the world.

The approach is in stark contrast with a statement Twitter made a year ago called “The Tweets Must Flow,” promising not to censor Twitter messages as they helped foment anti-government movements in a number of Middle Eastern countries.

In its latest announcement, Twitter said as it grows internationally, it is entering countries that have different ideas about the limits of freedom of expression. It said the laws are such that it cannot exist in some countries at all, while other nations are similar to the U.S. but restrict certain topics. It gave the examples of France and Germany, where pro-Nazi speech is banned.

While Twitter did not list other nations specifically, another example could be Thailand, where it is illegal to speak ill of the monarchy. Twitter does not operate in some countries that strictly control media content, such as China. In its letter, Reporters Without Borders questioned whether Twitter's decision to enable country-by-country blocking was motivated by the desire to penetrate the Chinese market.