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January 27, 2012

Has Twitter shot itself in the foot?

Twitter's new censorship policy faces a huge backlash as Twitterers make their voices heard, Twitter responds exclusively to CBR.

By Vinod

In a surprising turn for the social network Twitter announced today on its official blog:

"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."

This has been met by a whirlwind of criticism by Twitter users, leaving many scratching their heads about what Twitter is thinking.

Many users are planning a #Twitterblackout where they will not tweet the whole day in protest of Twitter’s strange new policy.



It was just last year when the microblogging site posted a blog titled, "The Tweets Must Flow."

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This now famous post said, "We strive not to remove Tweets on the basis of their content."

"The open exchange of information can have a positive global impact. Almost every country in the world agrees that freedom of expression is a human right. Many countries also agree that freedom of expression carries with it responsibilities and has limits."

When asked if Twitter’s new measures were a response to external investors, specifically the recent $300m investment by Saudi prince Alwaleed bin Talal, Twitter spokesperson Rachel Bremer was adamant that money had no influence.

"I can confirm this has nothing to do with any of our investors."

Twitter’s stance on freedom of expression has proven historically important, after the Arab Spring, which saw Tunisia, Egypt and Libya’s corrupt, authoritarian government’s overthrown – in part due to Twitter’s freely available communication.

The post last year followed an earlier announcement by Twitter that the site was becoming available in Hebrew, Farsi, Urdu, and Arabic; given the impression the site was becoming more open than ever.

If this strange new Twitter policy was put into place a year ago would the Arab Spring have happened? Twitter was used to help organise, raise awareness, and communicate during the wave of demonstrations and protests.

For citizens of repressive countries, this new policy could mean that anything published without being sanctioned by the government is illegal, making Twitter use an option not available for many people.

In effect, Twitter will lose massive amounts of users in these countries, clamping down on freedom of expression and information.

Twitter says that the site’s policy does not reflect their views on freedom of expression, but has been developed for legal reasons.

"Our announcement is not at all about Twitter censoring tweets, or any kind of policy or philosophical change in how we feel about the importance of free expression. It simply means that when we are required by law to remove content from the site, we can do it on a granular, per country basis, rather than for the whole world. This will only happen in reaction to valid legal process," Bremer, told CBR.

"We as a company, and as indivisible employees, feel extremely passionate about people’s right to free expression – which has been demonstrated in our actions since the company was founded. I want to stress that that is not changing," Bremer added.

Critics maintain that the definition of ‘required by law’ is very much open to interpretation by those in power..

If Twitter wants to grow and branch out into the world’s biggest markets like China and India, the only countries in the world with populations of over 1bn, then Twitter’s new policy is more likely to be allowed to operate within those countries. Twitter alludes to this saying that some ideas on freedom of expression "differ so much from our ideas that we will not be able to exist there."

This can be a fair a point as Twitter is following in the footsteps of Google who made similar moves when the search engine censored its results in order to accede to China’s ruling party’s demands.

"Twitter’s move shows the pressures social media organisations are under from multiple angles. They are impacted by local laws as well as the broader desire for freedom of information. These two things are often in opposition to one another," said Daniel Rowles, Social media expert and course director at The Chartered Institute of Marketing.

"By allowing filtering at a country-based level they give themselves the agility to react to a changing environment, and to manage a complicated international legal and regulatory environment," Rowles added.

At the time of writing, the Twitter feed #twitterblackout continues to grow in popularity. It has yet to be seen if the protest against Twitter’s new policy will still take place tomorrow on Data Privacy Day.

Please follow this author on Twitter @Tineka_S or comment below.

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