Twitter Switches on the Censors

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The social networking site Twitter finds itself between a rock and a hard place in foreign countries where speech isn't always free. On the one hand, Twitter's leadership doesn't want the whole site banned in those countries. On the other, what's a dictatorial government going to do with a social networking site that helps stir up civil dissent? The answer: Ban it. But that's not good for business.

So the site that helped fuel the Arab Spring last year and briefly brought Iranian protests to the fore in 2009 just announced that it's going to start dancing with the censorship devil. In the past, if a tweet had to be removed from the site for legal reasons — usually copyright infringement — it was taken down universally. Now, the tweet can be taken down from one country and still seen by tweeters in other countries.

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"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," the announcement from Twitter says.

Any time a tweet is censored, the company says it will notify the person who tweeted it and describe the removal on a Twitter-specific section of ChillingEffects.org.

A quick glance at ChillingEffects.org's existing Twitter notices shows a long list of complaints about tweets that direct followers to sites for illegally downloading movies, music and other entertainment. We'll see what kind of complaints will roll in now.

When revolutions are a possibility, Twitter becomes an obvious target for those in power. Twitter is banned in China, and although there were workarounds, it was also just one of many sites unavailable when Egypt shut down the Internet a year ago.

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This all makes me wonder which countries the company actually has in mind with this new policy. The Wall Street Journal speculated about China, and the New York Times focused on African countries, while the Financial Times pointed out that Twitter has its sights set on Western Europe, Latin America and South Korea.

We'll have to wait for the censored tweets to tell.

Photo Credit: Scott Beale, Laughing Squid.

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