Twitter faced a growing backlash on Friday, less than a day after it announced that it can now block specific tweets from being published in specific countries that legally require such censorship.
On Friday, a day after the country-specific plan was announced, #TwitterBlackout and #TwitterCensored were trending topics on the hugely popular social network.
In the case of #TwitterBlackout, thousands of users from around the world threatened to boycott using the service on Jan. 28, with the hactivist group Anonymous among those calling on tweeters to skip the site for a day. The group Reporters Without Borders issued a letter on its website to Twitter's executive chairman, Jack Dorsey, asking him to "reverse a policy that violates freedom of expression."
The trending topic #TwitterCensorship was filled mostly with tweets from users complaining that Twitter shouldn't be censoring any of its users. Fear over increased censorship also was widely expressed, as was some frustration as some believe Twitter's new policy may result in less censorship, not more.
In the past, Twitter only withdrew a user's tweet globally — meaning the entire world wouldn't be able to see a tweet if the site censored it. But now, the San Francisco company has built a tool that allows them to censor tweets just in the country that calls for the censorship, but others outside of that nation will be able to view the message share on the service.
Twitter said Thursday in a blog post that it doesn't want to censor anyone's tweets but legally has to do so in certain cases, such as France's and Germany's ban on "pro-Nazi content."
The company also said it has teamed with the free-speech and online-rights website ChillingEffects.org — an online partnership between the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley, University of San Francisco, University of Maine, George Washington School of Law and Santa Clara University School of Law clinics — to document who is asking for a tweet to be censored and why. Such notices will be published at chillingeffects.org/twitter.
Jillian C. York, the Electronic Frontier Foundation's director of international freedom of expression, argued in a blog post defending the company that the move doesn't "represent a sea change in Twitter's policies."
"It's been difficult to comment on the move given the extreme reaction by Twitter's own community," York said. "Lots of 'I told you so' from the conspiracy theorists who think that this is because of Saudi Prince Alwaleed's stake in the company, compounded by the #occupy crowd continuing to claim their hashtag was censored in Twitter's trending topics made me want to avoid the subject entirely."
But, of course, York doesn't avoid the subject.
"Let's be clear: This is censorship," she said. "There's no way around that. But alas, Twitter is not above the law. Just about every company hosting user-generated content has, at one point or another, gotten an order or government request to take down content. Google lays out its orders in its Transparency Report. Other companies are less forthright. In any case, Twitter has two options in the event of a request: Fail to comply, and risk being blocked by the government in question, or comply (read: censor). And if they have 'boots on the ground', so to speak, in the country in question? No choice."
Nonetheless, York said she understands why people are angry.
"Twitter has previously taken down content — for DMCA requests, at least — and will no doubt continue to face requests in the future," she said, referencing Twitter blocking tweets in the past to follow DMCA copyright laws. "I believe that the company is doing its best in a tough situation…and I'll be the first to raise hell if they screw up."
[Updated 3:03 p.m.: Twitter updated it's blog post on the censorship changes in response to the user backlash seen over the last day.
The company said that it believes "new, more granular approach to withheld content is a good thing for freedom of expression, transparency, accountability -- and for our users. Besides allowing us to keep Tweets available in more places, it also allows users to see whether we are living up to our freedom of expression ideal."
Twitter also answered threee questions it says it has been asked since Thursday. The questions and answers from Twitter:
Q: Do you filter out certain Tweets before they appear on Twitter? A: No. Our users now send a billion Tweets every four days -- filtering is neither desirable nor realistic. With this new feature, we are going to be reactive only: that is, we will withhold specific content only when required to do so in response to what we believe to be a valid and applicable legal request.
As we do today, we will evaluate each request before taking any action. Any content we do withhold in response to such a request is clearly identified to users in that country as being withheld. And we are now able to make that content available to users in the rest of the world.
Q: What will people see if content is withheld? A: If people are located in a country where a Tweet or account has been withheld and they try to view it, they will see a alert box that says "Tweet withheld" or "@Username withheld" in place of the affected Tweet or account.
Q: Why did you take this approach, and why now? A: There's no magic to the timing of this feature. We've been working to reduce the scope of withholding, while increasing transparency, for a while. We have users all over the world and wanted to find a way to deal with requests in the least restrictive way.]