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2012 is turning out an important year for Internet freedom

Twitter’s not had the ability to censor certain tweets or accounts, to prevent them from being seen — if legally required — by users in particular countries. That’s now changed, though Twitter stresses that it hasn’t yet used this new ability and that should it have to, anything withheld will be disclosed.

business Updated: Jan 27, 2012 19:18 IST

Until now, Twitter’s not had the ability to censor certain tweets or accounts, to prevent them from being seen — if legally required — by users in particular countries. That’s now changed, though Twitter stresses that it hasn’t yet used this new ability and that should it have to, anything withheld will be disclosed.



Twitter has shared the news on its blog, saying:



"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. Others are similar but, for historical or cultural reasons, restrict certain types of content, such as France or Germany, which ban pro-Nazi content.

Until now, the only way we could take account of those countries’ limits was to remove content globally. Starting today, we give ourselves the ability to reactively withhold content from users in a specific country — while keeping it up in the rest of the world. We have also built in a way to communicate transparently to users when content is withheld, and why."

These types of censorship demands have long been placed against search engines like Google or anyone who hosts content (such as through Google’s Blogger). Twitter is preparing for potential demands in the way that Google already does, by alerting its users to when content has been withheld and providing information about why, though the Chilling Effects site.



On the surface that sounds scary. "Reactively withhold content," reads like censorship. But, it's (mostly) a good development.



This announcement from Twitter reads like an invitation to censors. On the face of it, this is nothing new – Google does much the same. For example, in India, Google shows a different version of the map on Google Maps in line with the Indian governments policy, and also censors content and search results accordingly. Twitter, until now, had a single global policy and approach, which meant that if you were following certain users and tweets, they would have been accessible to everyone across the world. This meant that if Twitter was in violation of the local laws in a particular country, it could have been sued or blocked, and the company would not have been allowed to conduct business in the country, without risking legal or government intervention.



The Not so Scary

Twitter's already censoring tweets

. Both in the U.S. and globally. Twitter's basically taking its U.S. policy and applying it to other countries individually. As of now, Twitter, like Google, follows the Digital Millennium Copyright act. And that won't change, as Marketing Land's Danny Sullivan explains. "That will continue to be the case going forward, and any request made under US laws to remove content will continue to pull that content from Twitter worldwide," he writes. But now, it can respond to, for example, Germany's request to take down pro-Nazi tweets, without removing the tweet from the rest of the world, as policy allowed until today. The new policy will actually limit the censorship, rather than spread it, taking it from a global blackout, to a country specific one.



They're going to be transparent about it

. Following that scary "reactively withhold" part, Twitter mentions that it has "built in a way to communicate transparently to users when content is withheld, and why." When it does choose remove content, Twitter alerts the world via a Twitter feed (of course) @ChillFireHose. Once removed, the doesn't just disappear. Twitter will post the following message, or something like it, in its place.



It's not necessarily permanent.

Sometimes Twitter might misidentify a user's country. That can be changed over at the Twitter help center, giving users the ability to override the censorship.



The Scary


Sometimes Twitter might misidentify one's country

. Twitter relies on IP addresses to locate tweeters. That's not exactly fool proof, which is why they have that help center we mentioned above. Both Twitter and tweeters could abuse this override tool.



What happens during a revolution?

Considering Twitter has had such an large role in the Arab Spring, it's not absurd to ask what might happen if a government declares tweeting illegal during protests. This is a hypothetical concern. "Typically when this happens, Twitter says, it doesn’t get demands to block particular accounts or tweets. Instead, authorities in the affected countries either ignore Twitter (good for freedom of expression) or block it entirely (bad, but also out of Twitter’s control)". Of course, a hypothetical concern could turn into a real one. And then what?