Twitter Now Able To Censor Tweets, If Required By Law, On A Country-By-Country Basis

Twitter logoUntil now, Twitter’s not had the ability to censor certain tweets or accounts, to prevent them from being seen — if legally required — by users in particular countries. That’s now changed, though Twitter stresses that it hasn’t yet used this new ability and that should it have to, anything withheld will be disclosed.

Twitter has shared the news on its blog, saying:

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.

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 up in the rest of the world. We have also built in a way to communicate transparently to users when content is withheld, and why.

These types of censorship demands have long been placed against search engines like Google or anyone who hosts content (such as through Google’s Blogger). Twitter is preparing for potential demands in the way that Google already does, by alerting its users to when content has been withheld and providing information about why, through the Chilling Effects site.

Censorship At Google

When you search at Google, and something has been removed for a legal reason, a notice appears in your search results. For example, here’s a search for american nazi party on Google Germany, which brings up this disclosure at the bottom of the page:

That’s alerting people searching in Germany that Google has removed a result due to a legal reason, and it points over to a page at the Chilling Effects site that explains exactly what the request was. In this case, the request doesn’t list what was removed, probably because the German laws don’t even allow that.

Chilling Effects keeps the complaints that are sent to Google, which Google has in turn provided to help made transparent why it has been order to remove content. Google also maintains a Google Transparency Report that logs requests received by country and in other ways.

Censorship At Twitter

So far, Twitter tells me that virtually all of the tweets it has had to pull have been due to complaints filed through the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Like Google, it has already been filing requests it receives to remove content with Chilling Effects.

That will continue to be the case going forward, and any request made under US laws to remove content will continue to pull that content from Twitter worldwide.

However, now if Twitter gets a request to remove content under the laws of another country, it can react to remove that content just for people in those particular countries.

For example, say you were in Germany, and someone tweeted a link to content that Twitter had been told was illegal in some way. If Twitter had complied with the demand to remove this content, then you’d see this type of notice:

People outside Germany would still be able to see this content.

The restrictions will be based on the IP address of the user. As this isn’t perfect, Twitter will allow people to override this, if they believe they’re being inaccurately targeted. A help page about Twitter’s new country setting tool explains more.

Another help page at Twitter explains in more detail about country withholding, and how this might also happen for some accounts (versus individual tweets) and the types of notices people may see.

Should You Worry? Probably Not

The news, coming right after all the attention around opposition to the anti-piracy SOPA/PIPA bills in the United States, might cause some to think Twitter is bending to new anti-piracy demands.

That’s mistaken. Twitter’s already been pulling content where piracy or copyright claims are lodged, under the existing DMCA law. Today’s announcement isn’t changing that, though potentially, Twitter might begin disclosing DMCA takedowns within its own search results and Twitter timelines. That doesn’t happen yet, but Twitter says it hopes to do so over time.

What’s new is that eventually, Twitter may expand to having staff based in other countries. That makes the company more liable to legal actions in those countries, so it needs a way to comply with those legal demands. The new “Country Withheld Content” change gives it a framework to do so.

That, of course, leads to another concern. What if some country undergoing a revolution declares that tweeting about protests is illegal? 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 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).

Overall, there doesn’t seem to be a particular reason to hit the panic button here. Twitter stressed this was a reactive tool, not one where it is globally installing filters (as is the case for search engine censorship in China). Anything that does get removed is done so on a case-by-case basis, with removals logged to Chilling Effects. There’s even a special page now devoted just to Twitter filings.

Postscript: Twitter’s change has not gone over well in some quarters, with Twitter protests even being planned. There’s some significant confusion, I’d say, between the idea that companies can indeed be forced to censor based on local laws and being upset with those laws themselves. There’s more commentary and reaction about this on Techmeme, so check out some of the posts there. I’d stress again that I don’t see this change as being any reason to hit the panic button.

Related Stories

Related Topics: Channel: Industry | Legal: Censorship | Legal: Copyright & Trademark | Top News | Twitter | Twitter: Legal

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About The Author: is Founding Editor of Marketing Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search marketing and internet marketing issues, who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

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Read before commenting! We welcome constructive comments and allow any that meet our common sense criteria. This means being respectful and polite to others. It means providing helpful information that contributes to a story or discussion. It means leaving links only that substantially add further to a discussion. Comments using foul language, being disrespectful to others or otherwise violating what we believe are common sense standards of discussion will be deleted. You can read more about our comments policy here.
  • http://twitter.com/mikecane Mike Cane

    Given how Twitter has already suppressed trending topics — Occupy Wall Street is premier in my mind — this is not surprising.  Disgusting, but not surprising.

  • http://twitter.com/StephenEP Stephen Palkot

    No evidence has been produced that Twitter has suppressed Occupy Wall Street. Here’s more on the topic: http://www.npr.org/2011/12/07/143013503/how-twitters-trending-algorithm-picks-its-topics

  • http://twitter.com/JanuaryGemorie January Gemorie

    I guess twitter is following Google’s Age restriction policy whereas, teenagers ages 13 can now join discussions on Google plus if and only if they belong to the “Teen Circle”, it functions like whenever they post something an alert will pop asking them whether to continue or not since everyone can see it.

  • Anonymous

    Look for something like BitTweet to emerge just as BitTorrent was a reaction to copyright enforcement. Freedom
    routes around censorship and interference.

  • http://www.kleemi.com Bruce Wayne

    ….”Our Great Twitter whom we continue to create millions in value for by adding content on a daily basis cares nothing about freedom of speech ….No surprise there….Twitter is a traditional internet Corp who’s primary goal is to Extract as much Value from the”Community” as possible so that it can be leveraged into hunders of millions of dollars in revenues…In this traditional Corp frame work “Community” and “Freedom” of speech are degraded to their lowest possible denominators.We are developing http://www.kleemi.com as “Community” first alternative to Google, Twitter, and Facebook.
    The application is in alpha and some of the current features are : Cutting Edge Meta Search Engine, Fully Integrated News Reader and Micro Blogging service.

  • http://twitter.com/catfitz CatherineFitzpatrick
  • http://twitter.com/cherie1999 candice lewis

    what the hell…twitter sold us out…why twitter..why…and as for Google..why..i thought u were on  the people side….how could you and twitter do that…i bet congress got to them…

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