On January 26th Twitter posted a message on it’s blog explaining it’s new ability to censor tweets on a per country basis. The post by Twitter can be found here. Up until know Twitter could only pull tweets on the global level.
In the old system when Twitter was ordered to remove a message or an account by a certain country the information would be removed from Twitter entirely. In the case that the origin of the message is not the country that wants it removed this could lead to a situation where a oppressive government is enforcing its censorship outside it’s borders. I don’t know if this situation actually occurred. In the new system the message would only be removed in the country where the message has been found to be in violation.
This definitely seems to be a lesser evil. However I fear that this will increase the amount of times this type of action is taken. In the post they give a perfectly reasonable example of laws that prohibit spreading of pro-Nazi propaganda in France and Germany. I doubt this is the main reason for this new policy. More likely Twitter wants to keep the Chinese government happy. Thus allowing it to operate without problem on this important market.
Extensive use of this feature, Twitter now offers to oppressive governments, will make it for more difficult for opposition in those countries to get their message across. It has the potential to cripple movements like the “Arab Spring”.
At first sight there is nothing we can do about this practice as they are following the law in all involved countries. I however want to propose new legislation that I would hope to have Twitter reconsider. In the case a foreign government has messages from one of its inhabitants pulled I don’t see how we can intervene. However in the case of twitter removing posts of residents of Western countries criticizing China for example we must react. It cannot be allowed that a Western company takes away our right of free speech on the global Internet, even on just a part of it. When this case occurs, Twitter should be fined by our courts.
I this article I responded solely to the Twitter post. I however believe that other online services have or will use a similar system if nothing is done. Maybe the others don’t communicate as openly about these policies then Twitter.