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How Tweet It Isn't: Twitter's New Censorship Policies

Yesterday Twitter announced a policy change that has the Twitterati flapping about like bluebirds trying to hoist a Fail Whale.

In 140 characters or less: Twitter is now supporting local censorship of tweets.

Per the Twitter blog:

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 available in the rest of the world. We have also built in a way to communicate transparently to users when content is withheld, and why.

You can interpret this in one of two ways: As Twitter capitulating to repressive governments (including American allies like India and Israel), or as Twitter minimizing the damage by keeping said governments from attempting to block all of Twitter or cut off all access to the Internet, which we've seen attempted on more than a few occasions.

Of course, blocking all of Twitter also hurts Twitter. You can't charge money for sponsored tweets if nobody can read them.

Contrast this with the bold stance Twitter took last January, though, and it reads more like capitulation. Last year, during the height of the Egyptian uprising, Twitter had this to say:

At Twitter, we have identified our own responsibilities and limits. There are Tweets that we do remove, such as illegal Tweets and spam. However, we make efforts to keep these exceptions narrow so they may serve to prove a broader and more important rule -- we strive not to remove Tweets on the basis of their content. For more on what we allow and what we don't, please see this help page.

Our position on freedom of expression carries with it a mandate to protect our users' right to speak freely and preserve their ability to contest having their private information revealed. While we may need to release information as required by law, we try to notify Twitter users before handing over their information whenever we can so they have a fair chance to fight the request if they so choose.

So in 12 months Twitter goes from "we strive not to remove Tweets on the basis of their content" to "we give ourselves the ability to reactively withhold content from users in a specific country." What a difference a year makes.

The sad fact is that, in practical terms, Twitter has no choice. If it doesn't censor tweets, the governments in question will do it for them. And in fact, Twitter has offered a sneaky workaround for people whose tweets have been censored: Manually override Twitter's IP-based location setting. Tell it you're really in Iceland or Ireland instead of Iran.

At least, until repressive regimes cotton on to this trick and force Twitter to block it. This feels an awful lot like the two-steps forward/three-steps-back dance Google did with China a few years ago. Its bold words on standing up for human rights turned into an ineffectual exercise in saving face.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation's Jillian C. York lays it out with brutal clarity [emphasis in original]:

Let's be clear: This is censorship. There's no way around that. But alas, Twitter is not above the law. Just about every company hosting user-generated content has, at one point or another, gotten an order or government request to take down content.... In any case, Twitter has two options in the event of a request: Fail to comply, and risk being blocked by the government in question, or comply (read: censor). And if they have "boots on the ground", so to speak, in the country in question? No choice.

Internet censorship is a sad reality, and it's not exclusive to lands outside U.S. borders. But just as Arab Spring protestors used workarounds like voice-to-text services to get around Egyptian censorship last year, we can hope the world's Netizens will come up with clever ways to ensure everyone has a right to be heard. Because what other choice do we have?

Does Twitter's new local censorship policies tick you off? Blow off some steam below or email me: cringe@infoworld.com.

This article, "How tweet it isn't: Twitter's new censorship policies," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the crazy twists and turns of the tech industry with Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Field blog, and subscribe to Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter.

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