Freedom of expression concerns over Twitter's country-specific censorship ability prompt users to call for protest

In a bid to "enter countries that may have different ideas about the contours of freedom of expression," Twitter announced that it has the ability to begin censoring tweets on a country-by-country basis, the Associated Press (AP) reported Thursday, Jan. 26. The announcement has prompted fears that Twitter's commitment to free expression might be taking a back seat to profitability -- especially in light of the role Twitter played in the Arab spring and protests against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the United States.

Ironically, Twitter's announcement comes just a year after the Jan. 25, 2011, start of the Egyptian revolution, during which more than 3 million related tweets were sent, prompting a report from the Project on Information Technology and Political Islam to declare that during the Arab spring, "social media became a critical part of the toolkit for greater freedom," according to the Huffington Post.

Despite a year ago arguing that "the tweets must flow" and declaring that "we keep the information flowing irrespective of any view we may have about the content," Twitter now says it has "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." Doing so is necessary, the company contends, because "as we continue to grow internationally, we will enter countries that have different ideas about the contours of freedom of expression," and Twitter must uphold local laws.

NPR questioned whether the potential censorship is a result of Twitter's desire to begin operating in China, where in 2010 Google, which had been censoring results in order to operate in the country, announced that it would stop censorship after a falling out with the Chinese government, explained the Wall Street Journal.

With hashtags like #TwitterBlackout and #TwitterCensored, users have started a campaign to protest Twitter's new policy, calling for no one to use the micro-blogging site on Saturday, reported the Washington Post and the Huffington Post.

"Very disturbed" by Twitter's announcement, Reporters Without Borders on Friday, Jan. 27, sent a letter of protest to Twitter Executive Chairman Jack Dorsey, urging the company 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." The letter went on to question what the company would gain by moving into a country, like China, where Twitter already is censored. "This decision runs counter to the tendency to reject censorship demands from governments such as China’s, a trend started by Google and GoDaddy," the letter said. "We urge you to think again about this new policy’s implications both for freedom of expression and your company’s development strategy. The commercial advantages in the Chinese market are not the only criteria to be considered. Twitter’s image in the eyes of its users is also at stake."

Some, though, like blogger Alex Howard, say it is not yet time to panic. For example, he quotes Jillian York, Director of International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who said "this isn’t different from how Twitter’s already been handling court-ordered requests, except that it won’t affect users outside of a given country. Given their moves to open an office in the UK (with all of its crazy defamation laws), I can see why they’ve taken this route. It’s unfortunate that they may have to censor any content at all, but I applaud their move to be as transparent as possible about it."