Late last week, the social networking service Twitter announced changes to its policy: It will now “reactively withhold content from users in a specific country” when legally requested to do so. In a follow-up to the original blog post, Twitter argues that this is a step toward greater freedom of expression. Previously, censored content was removed on a global scale; now it will only be removed at the country level:
In short, we believe the new, more granular approach to withheld content is a good thing for freedom of expression, transparency, accountability— and for our users. Besides allowing us to keep Tweets available in more places, it also allows users to see whether we are living up to our freedom of expression ideal.
Twitter users are putting a different spin on this action, as The Guardian notes:
Terence Eden, a London-based mobile developer, complained on Twitter: “I don’t want to develop an API which contains a ‘withheld_in_countries’ field. What’s next, a ‘for_your_own_good’ field?” He added: “I helped develop a Twitter client that Chinese pro-democracy activists used. Guess that’s dead now. Thanks, Twitter.”
Eden, who describes the move as censorship, said it would be difficult to work around because Twitter will identify which country a user is in by their internet address. “You can spot the censorship, but it’s hard to route around it,” he said.
Some outraged users responded by instituting a Twitter Blackout on Saturday, January 28th. But several media bloggers, including Paul Smalera at Reuters, Jillian C. York at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Andrew Couts of DigitalTrends have sided with Twitter, arguing that the social networking service must work within the bounds of the law, and that it is unlikely that the policy will effect a large number of tweets.
Critics of the policy, among them William Pesek of www.livemint.com, have cited the role that Twitter has played in a number of social uprisings in recent years, including student protests during the Iranian elections of 2009 (though Malcolm Gladwell disagrees) and the Arab Spring of 2011. These critics argue that censorship would threaten or eliminate Twitter’s role as an organizing tool. NPR reports:
Reporters Without Borders, which advocates globally for press freedom, sent a letter to Twitter’s executive chairman, Jack Dorsey, urging that the censorship policy be ditched immediately.
“By finally choosing to align itself with the censors, Twitter is depriving cyberdissidents in repressive countries of a crucial tool for information and organization,” the letter said. “Twitter’s position that freedom of expression is interpreted differently from country to country is unacceptable.”
Reporters Without Borders noted that Twitter was earning praise from free-speech advocates a year ago for enabling Egyptian dissidents to continue tweeting after the Internet was disconnected.
“We are very disappointed by this U-turn now,” it said.
What do you think — is this censorship, or is Twitter making a wise move?
For more on the role of Twitter and other social media in social activism, check out the Mobilizing Ideas essay dialogue on Digital Media in Activism.