Twitter will censor tweets, but will try really hard not to

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Twitter said Thursday that it has made changes to its network that will allow it to remove tweets in a specific country if required to do so by law, but assured users that it will try hard to avoid having to do so because “the tweets must flow” — and said it will be as transparent as possible if and when it has to remove something. The company said laws around what content is legal to distribute differ from country to country, and the new system will allow it to remove tweets only for users in a specific area, rather than censoring the entire network. But no matter how Twitter phrases it, this news is going to concentrate attention on one thing: that a corporate entity, however well-meaning, controls which tweets are seen or not seen.

The company says it has actually been deleting tweets — and in some cases profile photos and other content — for some time, but only in extreme cases involving links to clearly illegal content such as child pornography, or in cases where someone files a takedown request under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act because of an infringing image or avatar. The new feature that was rolled out this week will allow for more precise geographic control over what gets removed, so that if a particular tweet is ruled to be illegal in Germany, for example, it can be deleted only for users in that country.

Twitter promises to be transparent and open

Twitter says that if and when this happens, it will be as obvious and transparent as possible about what has been deleted and why — by posting an official response in place of the tweet that has been removed, as well as by filing the details with Chilling Effects, a global censorship clearinghouse run by several prominent U.S. law schools and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. As Danny Sullivan notes in a post at Marketing Land, this is the same process that Google takes when it has to remove a site or specific webpages because of a DMCA request or other court order.

Twitter’s commitment to freedom of speech is pretty well-established by now, both in comments made by co-founder Biz Stone and former CEO Ev Williams about the power of the network to speak the truth, and also in decisions like the one the company made last year when it forced the U.S. government to acknowledge that it was seeking personal information from several Wikileaks supporters, including Icelandic MP Birgitta Jonsdottir and networking expert Jacob Appelbaum. Although other companies have likely received the same court order, Twitter was the only one to make it public.

Of course, making it public didn’t help Twitter in its fight to resist the court order — in the latest decision in the case, a court ruled that it would have to turn over the data, which includes IP addresses and email addresses — but at least it made it obvious what was happening. And both CEO Dick Costolo and general counsel Alex Macgillivray have stressed that Twitter sees itself as “the free speech wing of the free speech party.” The company said that it plans to resist attempts to remove tweets whenever possible, and will provide as much information as it can when it has to remove something:

One of our core values as a company is to defend and respect each user’s voice. We try to keep content up wherever and whenever we can, and we will be transparent with users when we can’t. The Tweets must continue to flow.

Twitter says it will not bow to government requests easily

That said, however, the reality is that Twitter has just opened itself up to all kinds of conspiracy theories about what tweets it is or isn’t withholding — and on whose behalf it is removing them. What happens if and when a revolution erupts in Saudi Arabia? Critics will no doubt latch onto the fact that Saudi prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz owns a significant chunk of Twitter, thanks to a recent investment in its shares. And what if Britain orders Twitter to remove specific tweets during a riot like the one that caused so much controversy last year, when the government consider banning some users from the service?

The company says that it will not accede to just any request for removal, regardless of whether it comes from a government, and has made it clear that its commitment to free speech extends to dissidents using Twitter for revolutionary purposes during events such as the Arab Spring in Egypt. But as Twitter becomes more and more of a global phenomenon, those commitments could be put to the test. What happens when someone posts a tweet that makes fun of the founder of Turkey, something that is a crime under Turkish law?

More than anything else, Twitter’s announcement highlights both how integral a part of the global information ecosystem it has become, and how vulnerable that ecosystem can be when a single entity controls such a crucial portion of it. How Twitter handles that challenge will ultimately determine whether it deserves the continued trust of its users.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Hank Ashby and See-ming Lee

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