Twitter Announces Censorship on Country-to-Country Basis

By: Qichen Zhang on 1 February 2012

Last Thursday, Twitter announced on its blog that it would begin censoring tweets on a country-by-country basis. The company stated:

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. ... 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.

The news has received mixed reception around the world. In Thailand, where political and social content is heavily filtered online, one government official has already voiced support for the change in Twitter's approach to content management: the country's communication technology minister, Jeerawan Boonperm, called the new policy "a welcome development." Chinese newspaper The Global Times has also written approvingly of the new policy. "It is impossible to have boundless freedom, even on the Internet and even in countries that make freedom their main selling point," journalist Xu Ming wrote.

Other organizations and individuals have criticized Twitter for the change. Some free speech advocates are worried that oppressive governments could find it easier to censor content and restrict information and citizen action, particularly troubling given Twitter's role in helping people organize demonstrations and protests during Arab Spring. Others are concerned that the change marks a new trend in American Internet companies bowing to the demands of authoritarian regimes. As Forbes notes, Google has already been filtering content in China for years. Some see Twitter as allowing its commercial interests—breaking into new markets—to trump the greater public interest.

However, some activists are defending Twitter and its attempts to keep content filtering as transparent as possible. Jillian York wrote that "the company is doing its best in a tough situation" and that Twitter has taken down content in the past due to DMCA requests. Zeynep Tufekci, a Berkman Center fellow, applauded Twitter for being a model of what Internet companies should strive toward, writing that the only reason the world knows about its policy changes is because of its transparency (unlike other Internet companies who take down content without warning, such as Facebook). Furthermore, she notes that this is ultimately a responsible change due to the fact that Twitter still operates under different legal jurisdictions in different countries. "The idea that Twitter can just ignore court orders everywhere is not only unrealistic, it would result in more countries to try to block Twitter completely—or make it accessible only via proxies and thus greatly restrict its power," says Tufkeci. Even as a resource for free speech activists globally, Twitter is "not above the law."