Twitter now able to censor tweets, if required by law, on a country-by-country basis

Until now, Twitter's not had the ability to censor certain tweets or accounts, to prevent them from being seen — if legally required — by users in particular countries. That's now changed, though Twitter stresses that it hasn't yet used this new ability and that should it have to, anything withheld will be disclosed.

Twitter has shared the news on its blog, saying:

As we continue to grow internationally, we will enter countries that have different ideas about the contours of freedom of expression. Some differ so much from our ideas that we will not be able to exist there. Others are similar but, for historical or cultural reasons, restrict certain types of content, such as France or Germany, which ban pro-Nazi content.

Until now, the only way we could take account of those countries' limits was to remove content globally. Starting today, we give ourselves the ability to reactively withhold content from users in a specific country — while keeping it up in the rest of the world. We have also built in a way to communicate transparently to users when content is withheld, and why.

These types of censorship demands have long been placed against search engines like Google or anyone who hosts content (such as through Google's Blogger). Twitter is preparing for potential demands in the way that Google already does, by alerting its users to when content has been withheld and providing information about why, though the Chilling Effects site.

Censorship at Google

When you search at Google, and something has been removed for a legal reason, a notice appears in your search results. For example, here's a search for american nazi party on Google Germany, which brings up this disclosure at the bottom of the page:

That's alerting people searching in Germany that Google has removed a result due to a legal reason, and it points over to a page at the Chilling Effects site that explains exactly what the request was. In this case, the request doesn't list what was removed, probably because the German laws don't even allow that.

Chilling Effects keeps the complaints that are sent to Google, which Google has in turn provided to help made transparent why it has been order to remove content. Google also maintains a Google Transparency Report that logs requests received by country and in other ways.

Censorship at Twitter

So far, Twitter tells me that virtually all of the tweets it has had to pull have been due to complaints filed through the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Like Google, it has already been filing requests it receives to remove content with Chilling Effects.

That will continue to be the case going forward, and any request made under US laws to remove content will continue to pull that content from Twitter worldwide.

However, now if Twitter gets a request to remove content under the laws of another country, it can react to remove that content just for people in those particular countries.

For example, say you were in Germany, and someone tweeted a link to content that Twitter had been told was illegal in some way. If Twitter had complied with the demand to remove this content, then you'd see this type of notice:

People outside Germany would still be able to see this content.

The restrictions will be based on the IP address of the user. As this isn't perfect, Twitter will allow people to override this, if they believe they're being inaccurately targeted. A help page about Twitter's new country setting tool explains more.

Another help page at Twitter explains in more detail about country withholding, and how this might also happen for some accounts (versus individual tweets) and the types of notices people may see.

Should you worry? Probably not

The news, coming right after all the attention around opposition to the anti-piracy SOPA/PIPA bills in the United States, might cause some to think Twitter is bending to new anti-piracy demands.

That's mistaken. Twitter's already been pulling content where piracy or copyright claims are lodged, under the existing DMCA law. Today's announcement isn't changing that, though potentially, Twitter might begin disclosing DMCA takedowns within its own search results and Twitter timelines. That doesn't happen yet, but Twitter says it hopes to do so over time.

What's new is that eventually, Twitter may expand to having staff based in other countries. That makes the company more liable to legal actions in those countries, so it needs a way to comply with those legal demands. The new "Country Withheld Content" change gives it a framework to do so.

That, of course, leads to another concern. What if some country undergoing a revolution declares that tweeting about protests is illegal? Would Twitter suddenly start censoring tweets that many within those countries might depend on?

Twitter tells me that this is more a hypothetical concern than a real one that it expects to face. Typically when this happens, Twitter says, it doesn't get demands to to block particular accounts or tweets. Instead, authorities in the affected countries either ignore Twitter (good for freedom of expression) or block it entirely (bad, but also out of Twitter's control).

Overall, there doesn't seem to be a particular reason to hit the panic button here. Twitter stressed this was a reactive tool, not one where it is globally installing filters (as is the case for search engine censorship in China). Anything that does get removed is done so on a case-by-case basis, with removals logged to Chilling Effects. There's even a special page now devoted just to Twitter filings.

(Published by Marketing Land - January 26, 2012)

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