Twitter's censorship policy stirs up a storm

By By Jessica Guynn

Los Angeles Times (MCT)

Published: Saturday, Jan. 28 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

This screen shot shows a portion of the Twitter blog post of Thursday, Jan. 26, 2012, in which the company announced it has refined its technology so it can censor messages on a country-by-country basis.

Twitter, Associated Press

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SAN FRANCISCO _ Twitter has promoted itself as a beacon of free speech, and that image was burnished when revolutionaries used the social media service to organize protests during last year's Arab Spring uprising.

But in what many view as an about-face, Twitter now says it has the power to block tweets in a specific country if the government legally requires it to do so, triggering outrage around the world, especially in Arab countries.

Dissidents and activists there fear the new policy will stifle free speech and thousands of users are threatening to boycott Twitter.

"Is it safe to say that Twitter is selling us out?" asked Egyptian activist Mahmoud Salem.

The flood of criticism was unusual for Twitter, which drapes itself in the First Amendment. Its chief executive, Dick Costolo, refers to it as "the free speech wing of the free speech party."

Jack Dorsey, who created Twitter, even named one of the conference rooms at his San Francisco company "Tahrir Square" in recognition of the pivotal role that Twitter played in the uprising in Cairo.

But Twitter, like other major Internet companies, is struggling to reconcile its philosophical opposition to censorship with the economic desire to fan out around the globe.

Facebook, Google and Yahoo navigate a complex web of laws and state-imposed restrictions that can be used to suppress dissident voices and sway public opinion.

It is common practice for Internet companies to take down content that is illegal in a particular country.

Twitter insists that it remains fully committed to free speech. It used to be that if Twitter removed a tweet, it vanished from the Web. Now a tweet that violates the law in one country will still be visible in the rest of the world.

Twitter will post a censorship notice whenever a tweet is removed, similar to what Google does.

It will share the removal requests on the Chilling Effects website, which advocates for Internet freedom and tracks take-down notices.

Twitter said it would not remove any tweets unless it is legally required to do so, and then only after an internal review.

Twitter's general counsel, Alexander Macgillivray, a former Google lawyer who helped the Internet search giant craft its censorship policies, also helped create the chillingeffects.org website while at Harvard.

Yet when legally required, Twitter has removed tweets that infringed on copyrights or link to child pornography.

It says it has endeavored to be transparent. Twitter publicly disclosed that the U.S. government had obtained a court order requiring Twitter to hand over information about four Twitter users in the WikiLeaks investigation.

Twitter said it went public so that the users could fight the request. It says it's applying that same principle here.

"One of our core values as a company is to defend and respect each user's voice," Twitter wrote in a blog post. "We try to keep content up wherever and whenever we can, and we will be transparent with users when we can't."

Some free-speech advocates defended Twitter, saying it was handing them tools to fight censorship.

Zeynep Tufekci, assistant professor at the University of North Carolina and a fellow at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society, said she found herself in the unusual position of praising, not condemning, the policies of an Internet company.

"Twitter is setting the bar as high as it can," Tufekci said. "It does not deserve the reaction it's getting."

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