Shortly after the start of the January 25 protests in Egypt last year, a movement where activists removed their sitting president and arguable lit the fuse for the Arab Spring that would burn throughout 2011, Twitter made an announcement:
The open exchange of information can have a positive global impact. This is both a practical and ethical belief. On a practical level, we simply cannot review all one hundred million-plus Tweets created and subsequently delivered every day. From an ethical perspective, almost every country in the world agrees that freedom of expression is a human right. Many countries also agree that freedom of expression carries with it responsibilities and has limits.
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.
It was well-placed statement given that many news sources speculated on how Twitter's service facilitated the Egyptian (and subsequent) protests; opportunistic, even, as Twitter wrapped itself in the banner of Free Speech and cried, "Sally forth, citizens of the world. Get your freedom on!"
Twitter stated earlier this week that they were branching into services for other languages such as Arabic, Farsi, and Hebrew. On a date that is so significant for so many in the Middle East, it was hard not to conceptualize the timing of the announcement as a self-acknowledging wink at Twitter's role, however major or minor, in the organization of protesters over the past year.
In a post on their official blog today, Twitter acknowledged that as they continue to move into culturally different regions of the world, some of what they can permit to be said through their service will be challenged by conflicting mores and tenets of freedom of expression. Given that, Twitter said today:
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.
So, if I'm understanding this correctly: someone in Egypt tweets something that violates a cultural or political restriction on free speech, so Twitter receives a request to remove it. Twitter now has self-applied the power to selectively remove the Tweet from view within Egypt, yet the rest of the world will still be able to read the tweet?
I really hope that's what Twitter means by this news. Please let this be what this means, Twitter.
So what do you think about Twitter's new elective powers for selectively censoring tweets where they violate freedom of expression laws but still make them available outside of that country? Anybody have any thoughts on what kind of implications people could see as a result of this new policy? Comment below with your thoughts.