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Last year at this time, the people of Egypt were using Twitter and other social media to communicate as they successfully sought to overthrow the government. Now the company has set up a system to enable it to censor (or “reactively withhold,” as Twitter puts it) certain tweets in certain countries. Twitter explains what’s going on:
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.
Users in affected countries will see a notice that a tweet has been censored if they try to access it, and Twitter will notify the website Chilling Effects when it takes this action. According to Marketing Land’s Danny Sullivan, Twitter already notifies the website when it removes tweets, generally due to copyright complaints.
His conclusion: “There doesn’t seem to be a particular reason to hit the panic button here.”
He asked Twitter about what would happen if an uprising starts to swell in a particular country:
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 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).
NPR’s Andy Carvin, who used Twitter to closely follow uprisings last year, told people on Twitter on Thursday night that regimes already can block the service if they want, and that this is simply a consequence of Twitter’s global expansion: “If Twitter does business in a country, then they’re [compelled] to follow local laws. That’s all this is.”
The Guardian’s Charles Arthur offers a couple of past situations in which Twitter could have filtered content:
In theory it could have been used last year in the UK to block tweets exposing details hidden by superinjunctions about celebrities, or in 2010 when Trafigura used a superinjunction to block the Guardian and BBC from revealing details about a report on activities in Africa.
The Next Web outlines a possible workaround to access tweets that have been hidden from some users.