As of right now, there are tweets floating around that everyone in the world can access except the residents of a single country - and it was Twitter's doing.
In a move of local censorship, Twitter has apparently blocked German users from accessing the tweets of an account said to belong to a neo-Nazi group.
According to the New York Times, Twitter has blocked the account @hannoverticker, wich belongs to the group Besseres Hannover. In English, that translates to "Better Hannover." German authorities had requested that Twitter simply block the account entirely, but Twitter has apparently acted upon their self-expressed ability to censor content locally without affecting the content globally.
Should Twitter (and other sites like Facebook and Google) act as policemen for their content? What, if anything should be censored? Is any censorship a slippery slope to more censorship? Let us know what you think in the comments.
Back in 2004, a German appeals court upheld a ban on web sites disseminating neo-Nazi information.
This marks the first time that Twitter has used this controversial measure. Here's what Twitter General Counsel Alex Macgillivray had to say in a tweet:
We announced the ability to withhold content back in Jan. We're using it now for the first time re: a group deemed illegal in Germany.
Twitter gave itself the ability to locally censor content on their site back in January. Here's what they had to say about the new policy:
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.
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.
This was seen as a modification, if not a clear reversal of Twitter's firmly-held beliefs on free expression. Before, Twitter had stated that "our position on freedom of expression carries with it a mandate to protect our users’ right to speak freely and preserve their ability to contest having their private information revealed."
Responding to criticism of the policy, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo said that users shouldn't worry about it.
"It will simply allow the company to transparently deal with valid government requests to remove certain content," he said. He also added that there had been "no change in our stance or attitude or policy with respect to content on Twitter."
Users from other parts of the world can still view the account and its tweets. Although blocking the account in Germany is better than simply deleting the account, I'm sure that many Twitter users and activists will see this as a loss for free speech.
It's important to note that this is only the first time that Twitter has used their newly-given powers of local censorship. Twitter has banned content on a global scale before, at the behest of governments. Back in February, Twitter removed a parody account of French president Nicolas Sarkozy after receiving requests from people closely tied to his camp. They defended this act of censorship by claiming that the account violated Twitter's policy on fake and parody accounts - mainly that the account didn't contain enough identifiers signaling its status as fake.
Of course, we noted that there are dozens of parody accounts out there that have been up and running for years - many of which fail to provide much information distinguishing them from the real persons.
Also, this comes on the heels of news that Twitter is under fire in France over an anti-Semitic hashtag. In that case, anti-racism groups say that they may pursue legal action against the social media company. Twitter has seen its share of hastag-related quandaries, for example a massive backlash against one particular tag, #reasonstobeatyourgirlfriend. In that case (and in many others) Twitter has employed a hands-off policy.
And it's not just Twitter that has dealt with requests for censorship from specific countries. In August, Indian officials asked Facebook to remove content from its site that they claimed sparked a mass panic and exodus of tens of thousands of people from cities in the northeast part of the country. Apparently, it was rumors of some sort of violence in the area that sent people fleeing. In that case, Facebook gave its rote response of "we will only remove content that specifically violates our terms."
But Facebook doesn't always take that route. Back in March of 2011, Israel's Minister of Diplomacy called on Facebook to promptly shut down a page called Third Palestinian Intifada. Facebook eventually took that page down, as the concluded that it did in fact violate their terms (it incited violence). More recently, Australians asked Facebook to remove pages that targeted the country's Aborigine population. Facebook also complied with that request.
Google, of course, gets hundreds of takedown requests from governments every year. One of the most recent and highly-publicized examples came from Brazil, when the company refused to take down what a Brazilian judge deemed "derogatory" YouTube videos of a local political candidate. After a scuffle between Google's Brazilian head Fabio Coelho and the law, Google finally caved an took down the "offending" videos. But on the flip side, Google has refused to take down the infamous "Innocence of Muslims" video that sparked violent protests across much of the Middle East.
The point is, web censorship is tricky and is not always handled in the exact same way by companies.
Twitter's policy is different than most other properties because it allows them to block certain content locally, but not globally. Do you think that local censorship is a better alternative that simply removing the content altogether? Being a private company, Twitter has the right to do this. But should they?
Or is the limitation of free speech unacceptable, even when it comes to hate speech that a country has deemed illegal? Let us know in the comments.