Twitter Filters Content to Accommodate Censorious Countries

If you’re a Twitter user, you might start getting notifications just like this from Twitter in the very near future if you tweet something that some foreign governments don’t like.

On Thursday, the social media company announced on its blog that, effective immediately, it has implemented the ability to withhold specific content from certain geographical regions in order to respond to government censoring without affecting its entire base of users.

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 available in the rest of the world. We have also built in a way to communicate transparently to users when content is withheld, and why.

We haven’t yet used this ability, but if and when we are required to withhold a Tweet in a specific country, we will attempt to let the user know, and we will clearly mark when the content has been withheld. As part of that transparency, we’ve expanded our partnership with Chilling Effects to share this new page,, which makes it easier to find notices related to Twitter.

According to PC Magazine, Twitter will determine which content to withhold in much the same way it does DMCA notices, albeit proactively.

As Twitter describes it, this new ability will basically be used much like Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown notices are honored in this country. “If we receive a valid and properly scoped request from an authorized entity, it may be necessary to reactively withhold access to certain content in a particular country from time to time,” Twitter said.

It did not define what a “valid and properly scoped” request would entail, but stressed that “we strongly believe that the open and free exchange of information has a positive global impact.”

Reporters Without Borders, which publishes the annual “Internet Enemies” report (PDF) of countries that censor and otherwise interfere with online freedom of expression, wrote a letter to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey urging that Twitter reverse its new policy.

We urge you to reverse this decision, which restricts freedom of expression and runs counter to the movements opposed to censorship that have been linked to the Arab Spring, in which Twitter served as a sounding board. By finally choosing to align itself with the censors, Twitter is depriving cyberdissidents in repressive countries of a crucial tool for information and organization.

We are very disturbed by this decision, which is nothing other than local level censorship carried out in cooperation with local authorities and in accordance with local legislation, which often violates international free speech standards. Twitter’s position that freedom of expression is interpreted differently from country to country is inacceptable. This fundamental principle is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The letter from Reporters Without Borders continue on, pointing out that, while Twitter indicates it will make all censorship requests and censored tweets transparent to users, the process by which the company plans on doing so is too vague.

We call on you to be transparent about the way you propose to carry out this censorship. Posting the removal requests you receive from governments on the Chilling Effects website will not suffice to offset the harm done by denying access to content. Twitter has said that, if it receives “a valid and properly scoped request from an authorized entity,” it may respond by withholding access to certain content in a particular country, while notifying the content’s author.

The way this is defined is too vague and leaves the door open to all kinds of abuse. Are you going to act in response to a court decision? Or, as is the case in China, will just a phone call from a government official or a local police station suffice to justify denying access to content? Are you going to limit yourselves to censoring tweets after they have been posted or, if faced with a flood of official requests, will you establish a system of prior censorship based on subjects or keyword defined by censors?

Twitter indicates it will determine the user’s location by his/her IP address (which, I think the company may discover brings some challenges of its own). While Twitter has already been complying with foreign governments’ requests to censor certain content, this decision certainly appears to make it easier for that to occur. For now, anyway, this is unfortunate news for those who tweet from, say, Iran, Cuba, North Korea, or China, among the other most censorious countries online. Then again, judging by the DMCA notices published at the shared Chilling Effects Twitter page, the U.S. isn’t exactly as non-censorious as one might think, either.