Twitter is eyeing an international expansion, and with this, the company wants to overcome regulatory and political hurdles, particularly from governments that practice online restrictions. As such, in light of the ideal that "the Tweets must flow," Twitter will be imposing a selective country-based censorship, to ensure that Tweets do flow, albeit with some limitation.
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has explained that the company plans to expand to countries that "have different ideas about the contours of freedom of expression." This might include historical or cultural reasons (such as pro-Nazi content being banned in Germany and France), as well as political ones (China censoring dissent). As such, Twitter will start to reactively censor tweets on a per-country basis.
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."
The aim here is for Twitter to be able to comply with the laws in specific countries where the microblogging service is explicitly banned. For instance, the service is banned from countries where authorities want to be able to pull out content viewed as anti-government. By allowing certain tweets to be inaccessible from within these countries, the hope here is for the restrictive regimes to relax their total ban and allow Twitter to operate.
But aside from meeting these censorship demands, Twitter wants to be transparent about it, in terms of notifying users. Twitter will alert users when their content is withheld, and will provide details of censorship requests via the Chilling Effects website.
Freedom of Expression Violated?
In an open letter to Dorsey, Reporters Without Borders director Olivier Basille criticized the move for being restrictive and against the freedom of expression, and called for Twitter to "reverse this decision." Basille says that the move is akin to local-level censorships carried out in cooperation with local authorities and in accordance with local legislation, which "violates international free speech standards."
There is question whether the decision was motivated by the "desire to penetrate the Chinese market at all costs," Basille adds. He cites the success of Weibo in China, which has about 550 million users between the popular Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo services. This potential for growth might have enticed Twitter enough to consider kowtowing to Chinese censorship rules, to finally break across the Great Firewall of China.
Should We Worry?
Marketing Land's Danny Sullivan says we probably should not worry about censorship at this time. If the concern is about copyright infringement, then Twitter is well within its rights to pull out potentially-infringing content (as if 140 characters are enough to constitute intellectual property infringement). But, the concern here is about complying with local laws, to gain access to certain jurisdictions. The selective censorship practice is already being implemented by other companies, such as Google, which bans search results on Nazi-related searches from Germany.
It's likely that Twitter wants to protect its staff, in case it does open facilities and offices in countries that practice online censorship. As such, there might be no need to hit the panic button yet, as Twitter "stressed this was a reactive tool, not one where it is globally installing filters."
The question here is whether agreeing to censor content in exchange for access to certain markets means that Twitter is selling out. Or, is Twitter just being practical?