Twitter Censorship Policy Divides Free-Speech Experts

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Unoffocial altering of the Twitter logo for the Jan. 28, 2012 Twitter blackout protests
Source: Emily Temple, “Are You Participating in Today’s Anti-Censorship ‘Twitter Blackout,'”, Jan. 28, 2012

Twitter’s announcement that it now has the ability to block messages (aka Tweets) country by country has generated controversy and divided some free-speech advocates.

Prior to its Jan. 26, 2012 announcement, Twitter would delete a Tweet entirely if the message violated local laws. The social networking site now has the ability to take down a Tweet in a specific country but keep the message visible to the rest of the world. In an effort to promote transparency, Twitter will notify users if their message is removed, indicate to all viewers that a Tweet has been withheld, and publish the takedown requests on Chilling Effects, a website run by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and several American universities.

In the US, a majority of Twitter takedown requests are from copyright holders wanting to remove links to pirated movies and music.

Critics of Twitter’s announcement are concerned that the new tools will be used to silence dissidents. Chinese artist and online activist Ai WeiWei tweeted on Jan. 26, 2012, “If Twitter censors, I’ll stop tweeting.” On Jan. 28, 2012, thousands of Twitter users participated in a self-imposed Tweeting blackout to protest the changes.

Twitter is credited with playing a pivotal role in last year’s Arab Spring protests. Thailand, with strict laws against criticizing King Bhumibol Adulyadej, became the first government to endorse Twitter’s new policy.

“The countries that engage in censorship are precisely the ones in which open and neutral social media platforms are most critical,” said ACLU staff attorney Aden Fine. “We hope Twitter will think carefully before acceding to any specific requests by those governments to censor content simply because they want to interfere with their citizens’ access to information and ideas.”

Free speech and digital rights organization Electronic Frontier Foundation defended Twitter’s changes in a Jan. 27, 2012 blog post, and asked supporters to “keep Twitter honest” and to circumvent censorship. “For now, the overall effect is less censorship rather than more censorship, since they used to take things down for all users. But people have voiced concerns that ‘if you build it, they will come,’ – if you build a tool for state-by-state censorship, states will start to use it. We should remain vigilant against this outcome.”

At the All Things D conference, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo said the new policy will not affect Twitter’s position in China or Iran, where the service remains blocked. Costolo also believes that Twitter will continue to be an important political tool. “Gosh, I really think 2012 is going to be the Twitter election,” said Costolo, “Candidates that don’t participate on Twitter while the conversation is happening, will be left behind.”


Eva Galperin, “What Does Twitter’s Country-by-Country Takedown System Mean for Freedom of Expression?,”, Jan. 27, 2012

Ryan Nakashimay, “Twitter Censorship Policy Not Black and White, Says CEO Dick Costolo,”, Jan. 30, 2012