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Twitter CEO defends new censorship policy

Text by Tony Todd

Latest update : 2012-01-31

Twitter’s announcement that it will censor content in countries where content contravenes local laws has sparked outrage. The site’s CEO has defended the new policy as the only way to navigate a treacherous legal minefield.

Micro-blogging site Twitter has sought to calm fears that a new policy to censor content on a country-by-country basis will hamstring freedom of speech.

The company’s CEO Dick Costello told the “All Things D” technology conference on Monday that by responding to requests from individual governments to block content, the hugely popular site was actually protecting its integrity.

Faceook, which is often compared to Twitter, automatically removes content, mostly sexual, from its site. It does not operate a country-by-country censorship policy, although it is banned in some countries.

In the announced changes to its censorship policy, Twitter said it would respond to requests by countries to remove posts that contravene local laws.

These posts would be made invisible for Internet-users within that country only, and a message would appear to say that content had been blocked.

“It’s a super complex issue,” Costello said. “It takes a while for the scholars and the people who study these matters to weigh in and start to say, ‘Wait, this is actually a thoughtful and honest approach to doing this and it’s in fact being done in a way that’s forward-looking.’ So we wait for that to happen.”

Thailand, a country where Internet censorship is rigorously enforced, was the first country to endorse Twitter’s censorship policy on Monday.

Costello said: “It is simply not the case you can operate in these countries and choose which of the laws we want [to adhere to].”

He also denied that by applying new censorship rules, Twitter was trying to break into markets such as China, where the service is currently completely blocked.


Chinese state-run newspaper the Global Times also praised Twitter’s stance, although Costello said he did not foresee working with Beijing.
“I don’t think the current environment in China is one in which we think we could operate,” he said.


Outrage, debate and acceptance

Twitter allows its users to post comments as well as links to other websites. Posts are restricted to 140 characters, a factor that has helped spurn the billions of “tweets”, on almost every subject imaginable, since it went live in 2006.

The service has an estimated 300 million users worldwide, and has been credited for being one of the (many and diverse) driving forces behind the Arab Spring revolutions that began in early 2011.

Many users believe that censorship on a country-by-country basis will hinder Twitter’s power to help ordinary people stand up to oppressive governments.

How some Internet users beat the censor

By changing their country of residence in their Twitter profile, although this option may not work in the long term if Twitter starts looking at IP addresses to see which country users are in, despite the country setting. Note that changing the location to “worldwide” will not stop the censor.

Using a virtual private network (VPN) or proxy server can fool Twitter into thinking users are accessing it from a different country. Note that this is a more complicated and potentially costly option, and may be illegal in some countries.

“If we can't speak our minds, then all freedom is lost,” Tweeted @mediator9 on Tuesday, while @jasonfperkins wrote “Twitter calling new policy where govts can take down tweets transparency, not censorship? Doesn't seem so to me.”

Other posts linked to blogs and articles analysing, condemning, and praising Twitters new censorship stance.

Mark Gibbs, writing for US financial magazine Forbes, wrote that Twitter had “committed social suicide.”

“I see Twitter’s management having made an epic mistake,” he wrote. “In trying to appease the demands of political pressure they’ve dug themselves a huge hole that they won’t be able to climb out of.”

Others pointed out that a measured censorship policy was not only inevitable in the face of local media laws, but could actually be beneficial in maintaining the site’s longstanding commitment to freedom of speech.

US-based media attorney Arthur Bright, writing for the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, pointed out that Twitter has already censored content in the past, and that the new country-by-country policy may in fact mean that less material will be removed (previously, removed content was taken down globally).

He added that censored tweets “won't just disappear -- they'll be replaced by a notification that the tweet was taken down. That notification may inspire curiosity about the censorship, and could in turn bring greater scrutiny upon the government behind the takedown.”

“Given the rock and hard place between which Twitter finds itself, we should cut it some slack,” he wrote.

Date created : 2012-01-31


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