Twitter faces accusations of censorship; users plan Saturday boycott

January 27, 2012

Some Twitter users say they will boycott the service on Saturday after the company announced it may begin blocking tweets in specific countries.

The social network said Thursday that it had given itself the ability to block content on a country-by-country basis when the content runs afoul of local laws.

“As we continue to grow internationally, we will enter countries that have different ideas about the contours of freedom of expression,” the company said in a blog post on its site. “Some differ so much from our ideas that we will not be able to exist there.”

Twitter’s new ability to selectively block tweets may help the company gain the goodwill of foreign countries where it is seeking to open new offices and it may even allow it reenter the biggest online market of all — China — where it has been blocked by the communist regime.

But the new policy has not gone over well with some of its users. Twitter, which played a key role in the Arab Spring uprisings last year and the WikiLeaks document dumps, had previously been held up as a champion of free expression.

Now some of its users are accusing it of being a censor.

Posting messages with the hashtags “#TwitterBlackout” and “#TwitterCensored,” tweeters writing in a range of languages told the company they oppose Twitter’s decision and that they are worried it will destroy the service’s capability for starting impromptu social movements.

In a letter to Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s executive chairman, the nonprofit organization Reporters Without Borders called on the company to be more specific about what threshold of government action would lead it to censor a post.

“The way this is defined is too vague and leaves the door open to all kinds of abuse,” wrote the group’s director, Olivier Basille, who wanted clarification on whether Twitter would require a court order to take down content, or if a phone call from a government agency would suffice.

Several other large Internet companies, including Google and Facebook, have acknowledged that they remove content to comply with individual countries’ laws regarding speech. In 2006, Yahoo lost its appeal challenging the French government’s right to order the company to remove Nazi memorabilia from its auction site to comply with a French law that prohibits pro-Nazi content.

“Yahoo was a landmark case,” said Cynthia Wong, director of the Center for Democracy and Technology’s project on global Internet freedom. “It shows how difficult it is to have that global presence.”

Companies must weigh the choice between selective filtering or being blocked from an entire country, she said. “Twitter has shown some willingness to challenge these things in court in the past. This is something they need to keep doing.”

Twitter emphasized that the policy would be reactive and that it won’t, for example, preemptively censor all content mentioning gay relationships in countries where homosexuality is illegal. It also promised to provide clear notice when content has been removed and committed to posting all of its takedown notices to the Web site Chilling Effects — a joint project of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and several universities — to keep a public record of requests. Twitter on Thursday released a list of 4,410 tweets it took down last year because they linked to illegally posted copyrighted material.

When the company deleted tweets in the past, they disappeared from Twitter streams all over the world. Now Twitter will be able to withhold messages from select groups of users while the rest of the world will still be able to see the messages.

The American Civil Liberties Union said Twitter’s commitment to transparency makes the best of a bad situation.

“Censorship is never a good thing, but transparency can help to minimize the harm,” ACLU attorney Aden Fine said.

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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