BEIJING—Twitter Inc. says it can now make content selectively available to users based on geography, and plans to use that ability to enter countries with "different ideas" about freedom of expression as a human right—reflecting the difficult ethical questions facing Internet companies.
Twitter says it can now make content selectively available to users based on geography, and plans to use that ability to enter countries with "different ideas" about freedom of expression as a human right. Tom Loftus reports for Digits.
The announcement, published on the official blog of the microblog operator, said Twitter is now able to withhold content from users in a specific country while keeping it available to the rest of the world.
The effort underscores thorny issues for Internet companies as their websites become more global and interconnected among different countries, and as they must cooperate with diverse views on Internet content control. For websites like Twitter as well as social-networking site Facebook, this has meant being blocked in countries like China where controls are more aggressive.
"As we continue to grow internationally, we will enter countries that have different ideas about the contours of freedom of expression," the post said, adding that in Germany, pro-Nazi content is banned. It said the ability has not been put to use yet, however.Twitter said in the post that it would take measures to notify users if it withholds posts. "If and when we are required to withhold a Tweet," or microblog post, "in a specific country, we will attempt to let the user know, and we will clearly mark when the content has been withheld, and why," it said.
Twitter will work with Chilling Effects, an Internet freedom advocacy website that compiles content take-down notices, to publish take-down notices. Such a practice would make it difficult for Twitter to operate in China, where Internet executives say prohibited keywords are treated like state secrets.
Twitter said it would notify users if and when it is "required" to withhold a Tweet.
The company did not list countries in which it plans to use its new ability, but said that it would not be a solution for all. Some countries "differ so much from our ideas that we will not be able to exist there," the post said, an implicit reference to countries such as China that have banned Twitter.
China has more Internet users than any other nation. Local Web firms in China employ dozens or hundreds of staff to police user-generated content daily, and are required by law to take down a frequently updated list of banned keywords for varying lengths of time, including those related to calls for peaceful political action.
Internet giant Google Inc., which had operated in China for four years while cooperating with censorship requirements, made the controversial decision two years ago to cease censorship in the country and to move its Chinese-language Web search service to Hong Kong. The decision was the subject of much disagreement both in and outside the company, and even among Internet freedom advocates, with some believing censorship in any form was unethical, and others believing that being present, even if censored, in China would ultimately help make information flow more freely within the country.
Twitter has been blocked for more than two years in China by Web filtering technology. Some loyal users use circumvention tools to access the website, but most microblogging users in China now use Chinese services, including by Sina Corp. and Tencent Holdings Ltd. Some loyal users use circumvention tools to access the website, but most microblogging users in China now use Chinese services, including by Sina Corp. and Tencent Holdings Ltd.
These websites have grown quickly and collectively have hundreds of millions of user accounts, despite censoring content, and new regulations that require users to register for their services using real-names.These websites have grown quickly and collectively have hundreds of millions of user accounts, despite censoring content, and new regulations that require users to register for their services using real-names.
Though the new system likely wouldn't allow Twitter back into China, initial reaction was negative among those who use it there through proxy services. "If Twitter starts censoring, then I'll stop tweeting," tweeted Ai Weiwei, the outspoken Chinese dissident artist and frequent tweeter.
Twitter has been instrumental in helping people to organize revolutionary or political protests in countries such as Egypt, Tunisia, the U.K. and U.S.
Twitter, which has said it has more than 100 million active accounts around the world, is making a push to become an online-advertising giant like Google.
The San Francisco-based Twitter, created in 2006, currently has a handful of employees in the U.K. and Japan in addition to its more than 700 U.S. employees.
As it expands elsewhere, the company will have to comply with local law or its employees could potentially face prosecution or other legal action.
Twitter's general counsel, Alex Macgillivray, is a former Google lawyer who had a hand in crafting some of that company's censorship-related policies. He also has worked on ChillingEffects.org.
Twitter CEO Dick Costolo has stated that the company is "the free speech wing of the free speech party."
More than a year ago, Twitter publicly disclosed that the U.S. government had obtained a court order requiring it to hand over information about four accounts of Twitter users in connection with an investigation of WikiLeaks, the website that published secret and classified information.
Twitter disclosed the request so that the account holders could "fight the request," Mr. Costolo said last year.
Twitter said in its post, "One of our core values as a company is to defend and respect each user's voice. We try to keep content up wherever and whenever we can, and we will be transparent when we can't."