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According to a Thursday Twitter blog post, titled "Tweets Still Must Flow," the new functionality will help the company better comply with valid, legal government requests.
"We haven't yet used this ability, but if and when we are required to withhold a Tweet in a specific country, we will attempt to let the user know, and we will clearly mark when the content has been withheld," said the post. Some critics, however, have alleged that the change will enable governments to more easily censor any tweets they don't like.
[ Internet powerhouses push back against feared U.S. government censorship. See Google, Mozilla, Wikipedia Fight SOPA Piracy Bill. ]
When weighing whether the changes might promote censorship, or simply help Twitter to better comply with legal requirements, keep these 10 facts in mind:
1. Some tweets are already excised. Twitter said it already complies with certain takedown requests; for example, posts that are illegal, or contain spam. "We make efforts to keep these exceptions narrow so they may serve to prove a broader and more important rule--we strive not to remove Tweets on the basis of their content," said Twitter.
2. Previous takedowns were global. According to Twitter, when it previously received a legal request to remove material, it had to do so for all users. But Thursday, the company said the changes would allow it "to reactively withhold content from users in a specific country--while keeping it available in the rest of the world."
3. Censorship concerns voiced. Some, however, have criticized the move as representing a step toward censorship. "In the bigger scheme of things it just opens up the floodgates," Reporters Without Borders spokeswoman Heather Blake told the BBC. "It allows for Twitter or other Internet organizations to censor things. Freedom of information, and freedom of the press can be compromised."
4. Twitter denies censorship intent. But in response to such criticism, Twitter spokeswoman told the BBC that the Thursday announcement was simply "a clarification to how we respond to legal requirements."
5. Even Europe demands some restrictions. Already, said Twitter, it must comply with content restrictions in place in various countries, including Europe. "As we continue to grow internationally, we will enter countries that have different ideas about the contours of freedom of expression," according to the Twitter blog. "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."
6. Twitter is already banned in China. Could Twitter's move be an attempt to begin to do business in China, where it's currently banned? That's a possibility, as microblogging network Weibo--which counts more than 140 million active users, as opposed to 100 million at Twitter--is thriving in China, and could become a global threat to Twitter.
7. Twitter promises transparency. Twitter has promised that any tweets that get withheld will be so noted--at least in the countries where they can be viewed. According to Twitter, its new approach will include "a way to communicate transparently to users when content is withheld, and why."
8. Copyright removal tweets lagging. A year ago, Twitter--in a blog post titled "The Tweets Must Flow"--said that that it was sending all copyright-removal notices it received to Chilling Effects, and that the group was tweeting all takedown requests. But that Twitter feed lists itself as being in beta, with the most recent tweet dating from February 9, 2011, and referencing a takedown request from 2010.
9. Cease and desist database running. If the takedown tweets have lagged, Twitter said Thursday that Chilling Effects now was maintaining a searchable database containing cease-and-desist notices received by Twitter.
10. Chilling Effects monitoring. The involvement of Chilling Effects--a site designed to help people "understand the protections that the First Amendment and intellectual property laws give to your online activities"--is certainly positive. Organizations involved in the project include the Electronic Frontier Foundation, as well as numerous law schools, including Harvard, Stanford, and Berkeley.
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