What's Scary and Not So Scary About Twitter Censorship

Twitter just announce a new policy that sounds scarier than it is, especially following all the talk about censorship these days. In a blog post titled "The Tweets Must Flow" twitter announced that it will now have the ability to restrict tweets to certain countries, instead of having to completely removing content individual governments consider illegal. "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," the post says. On the surface that sounds scary. "Reactively withhold content," reads like censorship. But, it's (mostly) a good development.

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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. 

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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.

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The other options can be found here. 

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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 (arguably) 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, Twitter told Sullivan. "Typically when this happens, Twitter says, it doesn’t get demands to 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)," writes Sullivan. Of course, a hypothetical concern could turn into a real one. And then what?