Twitter caves to global censorship, will block content on country-specific basis as required

A new Twitter policy which goes into effect today allows the social network "to reactively withhold content from users in a specific country," so that Twitter can further expand globally and "enter countries that have different ideas about the contours of freedom of expression."

The Twitter blog post announcing this news was titled "Tweets still must flow." And yes they must, but apparently in some countries, only if they're censored? Snip:

We haven’t yet used this ability, but if and when we are required to withhold a Tweet in a specific country, we will attempt to let the user know, and we will clearly mark when the content has been withheld. As part of that transparency, we’ve expanded our partnership with Chilling Effects to share this new page,, which makes it easier to find notices related to Twitter.

Hmmm. Maybe I'm missing something, but it's hard to see this as anything but a huge setback and disappointment, given Twitter's laudable history on human rights, privacy, and freedom of expression—and the critical role the service played in global popular uprisings over the last year.

As journalist Shannon Young notes, "It would've been too ironic for twitter to have made this country-based censorship policy announcement yesterday, on the #Jan25 anniversary." And, as Shannon points out, the announcement comes just days after Google announced new terms of user data collection.

Related (or not): remember about a month ago, when that Saudi prince dropped $300 million on a Twitter investment?

Update: Alex Macgillivray, the general counsel of Twitter, responds:

Three quick things:

#1: I can confirm that this has nothing to do with any investor (primary or secondary).

#2: This is not a change in philosophy. #jan25

#3: you'll see notices about withheld content at: so you'll get to figure out whether we've "caved" or not with data. This change gives us the ability to keep content up even if we have to withhold it somewhere.

I asked Jillian York, Director of International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, for her take on the news. She replies:

From my view, 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.


  1. Duplicitous scumbags, all of them. It’s the “hey, if we don’t do it, someone else will” mentality. It’s the classic way that hypocrites rationalize doing bad shit for profit.

  2. Adam: They were never doing those things. The trending algorithm has a number of pressures on it that make it counterintuitive for outsiders to judge why something does or does not trend. In the case you mentioned, this is a nice explanation of how it can look like Twitter manually censors specific trends even if they’re not:

    1. It’s a good read but the algorithm doesn’t suddenly morph, flip a switch and change priority and instantly remove an item from trends. Trends are just that, trends… not an on/off.

      There were also specific content  items that were barred from posting at all.

  3. “As we continue to grow internationally, we will enter countries that have different ideas about the contours of freedom of expression.”

    Orwell is doing a slow clap right now.

    I’m not pissing down your leg; I’m growing interpersonally with people who have different ideas about the boundaries of my wastes and genitals.

  4. It doesn’t feel good or sound good. But assuming that U.S. laws including the First Amendment apply to everywhere else in the world is also a form of arrogance. Brits can’t buy guns as easily as we can–what would we say about an American company that was shipping guns to London and claiming Second Amendment protection?

      1. You don’t need to be a cultural relativist to notice that when America tries to make the whole world dance to our tune, bad things happen.

        1. When it comes to free speech, I am absolutely certain that the governments of North Korea, China, Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia would completely agree with you. I do not feel they are the ones whose ethical points of view should be honored in this case.

    1. People around the world are actively seeking out unfiltered communication channels.  They have chosen to use US services like Twitter strictly because it serves their ends.

      Freedom of information is not being pushed on them.  Like most humans, they want it and are actively seeking it out.  It just happens that US corporations are offering a service which (unintentionally) meets their needs.

      Now, US corporations are leaving them hanging.  But whatever, it was always a tenuous alliance of convenience.  Time to find freedom of information elsewhere.

  5. Three quick things: 
    #1: I can confirm that this has nothing to do with any investor (primary or secondary).
    #2: This is not a change in philosophy. #jan25
    #3: you’ll see notices about withheld content at:
    so you’ll get to figure out whether we’ve “caved” or not with data. This change gives us the ability to keep content up even if we have to withhold it somewhere.
    -Alex (GC of Twitter)

    1. This is not a change in philosophy.

      That’s part of what’s troubling people so much.  The realization that actually you never were committed to freedom of speech and information.

      All of this #jan25 whatnot was just a coincidence, wasn’t it?  It was an unexpected side-effect of what has always been at Twitter’s core: a profit-driven venture to mediate and monetize human communication.  The philosophy never changed, it just got slightly distracted for a minute there during the Arab Spring.

    2. # This is not a change in philosophy. #jan25 #

      War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength, and Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia.

    3. You use hashtags in blog comments? 

      While I realize you had to make this change or face total blockage in some countries, it still doesn’t make it right. Playing nice with repressive governments is bad business, period. Just wait til they start hacking you like they did Google.

      These aren’t cultural “contours”, they are policies designed to retain control over thoughts, education and expression of the citizens of a nation. 

      Where does the slippery slope end?

  6. “This change gives us the ability to keep content up even if we have to withhold it somewhere.”So those of us in countries outside the fighting can still eat popcorn and keep up with the “Bleaaggh, we’re dying” tweets, but those actually at risk get nothing?  Way to stand up for… erm… regimes?

  7. The censors never give up, and emerge out of every crack. Look at this new film, exposing horrific corruption in Australia:

    Try to find a single reference to it in the Australian media, online or offline. There is none.

    We have Sopa, Pipa, MegaUpload and now Twitter. Depressing.

  8. Heh, that update is like…wow. “Check this website to see if you’re being screwed without recourse.”

  9. A further question would be, does this withholding happen *only* at a *country’s* request?  Could an unscrupulous billionaire request that offending tweets about themselves be withheld?  Could Twitter exercise this discretion if folks were posting about legislation that a politician/party/Twitter itself didn’t like?

    “Chilling Effects” indeed!

  10. So Twitter had the chance to be a significant outlet for people under oppressive regimes but has apparently just decided…no. This makes me sad.

  11. I know the hate wagon is rolling already but what does this mean in real life?  Can you access Twitter in e.g. China uncensored?  Or is the point of this that places like that can go from no Twitter at all to censored twitter?  If that is all that happens I don’t really have a problem.

    If, however, this allows places that would like a firewall like China’s but don’t have the resources to build one to get Twitter to do it for them, well that would be bad.

  12. so i guess we lost after all, huh? They’re just gonna go private and shut down sites one by one?

    I knew my kids would envy the golden age of information i had to live in, i just wished my pessimism was wrong. Or delayed.  Fuck you all. 

  13. I was all like “we regret to inform you that this information has been withheld by ‘we regret to inform you this information has been with held by ‘we regret to inform you…” but then I totally read the press release and PHEE-YOU! they only want to get rid of horrible tweets about Nazis and stuff.
    And it has nothing at all, whatsoever, to do with investors or money or anything either.
    So, that was nice.

  14. Thank god for alternatives.
    Twitter rose in months, it can be replaced in days.
    That’s what’s trending.

      1. Unfortunately that’s all too true… I quit Facebook (for totally different reasons) about a year and half ago and have been trying to switch my friends over to Google+ ever since I got my invitation, but most of them don’t seem to care about the issues that made me quit.

        1. Have you tried pointing out what Google+ does right instead of what’s wrong with facebook?

          Also has any of ’em pointed out that you’re quitting facebook over privecy concerns gets kinda nulled when you’re heading to a company that makes it’s money mining user data?

          Yea yea whatever. I like +. It feels cozey. And the discussions tend to be epic.

      2. Diaspora was supposed to be the free, decentralized alternative where users own all the content — and technically it is public now — but it is really slow and janky in that open-source kind of way.

        1. Blaming “slow and janky” on the fact that it’s open source is pretty unfair.

          The problem I see with Diaspora is that it’s too “geeky” for most users. A social network only works if enough people are using it, and I’m afraid there aren’t anywhere near enough technical people to get this thing flying.

  15. Could you maybe just work on responding to real trademark infringement notices in a more timely manner?

  16. [dons asbestos underwear]

    At first I was like, grrr! And then I was like, hmm. This is like the failure of DRM.

    The dream of these authorities is to perfectly control the technology. It’s a seductive idea – but we know it can’t be done. People work around it. It’s good for the authorities to be under this spell. We should encourage them.

    Yes it will be censored, but it’s not like the average Chinese citizen is unaware of that. They’ve already developed many ways to get around it, although it is a constant cat-and-mouse game.

    I think this is good. I wonder if we’re getting hung up on the nirvana fallacy here: comparing something to the ideal, instead of asking whether it is better than what we have now. I believe China + Twitter + censorship
    > China – Twitter.


    1. I think that’s a good way to look at it. We shouldn’t focus on the censorious nature of some countries’ laws; we should be glad they’re accepting ANY kind of technology in the first place. Baby steps are better than just laying there like North Korea.

  17. I don’t know what you all expected. Just like Google and Facebook and the like, Twitter is a private company. They are a *business*. Yes, it’s all well and good that they’re also a platform where you can express your opinion, but their main goal is to make money. If they want to do business in a certain country, they have to abide by the laws of that country. Yes, they could refrain from doing business there, but are you really expecting them to do so? It’s called capitalism. 

    If the users don’t like the company policies they can leave. There are other, similar services around. Only, I don’t think most Twitter users give a flying f.

    I’m not saying I agree with the decision. Only that it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone.

  18. ….”Our Great Twitter whom we continue to create millions in value for by adding content on a daily basis cares nothing about freedom of speech ….No surprise there….Twitter is a traditional internet Corp who’s primary goal is to Extract as much Value from the”Community” as possible so that it can be leveraged into hunders of millions of dollars in revenues…In this traditional Corp frame work “Community” and “Freedom” of speech are degraded to their lowest possible denominators.We are developing as “Community” first alternative to Google, Twitter, and Facebook.
    The application is in alpha and some of the current features are : Cutting Edge Meta Search Engine, Fully Integrated News Reader and Micro Blogging service.

  19. I think people are very ignorant of how a service like Twitter works outside of the United States. Our laws and tradition of expression are different elsewhere. Their laws impact individuals much more harshly. If a corporation wishes to play ball in another nation, they ought to follow their rules.

    That being said, our ideals are attractive to other people in other nations. Instead of outright self removal of the service from these nations, Twitter can still serve a function, that of communication in general, that helps ease these nations into recognizing a service.

    The code of language is a wonderful thing that shouldn’t be discounted outright. So what words are banned. Communication will never completely languish because of censorship. It may be self imposed but it’s not a detriment to the individuals who might otherwise, be caught by their internal monitors. Twitter catches it but I don’t think it’s set up that the national filters will know, just Twitter.

    Think of it this way – a man who is very vocal verbally as well as his use of banners is forbidden from using one. Does he stop communicating with the world entirely or does he get creative in his use of words?

    1. > If a corporation wishes to play ball in another nation, 
      > they ought to follow their rules.

      Indeed.  I would say “must” instead of “ought”.  Even in the USA Twitter follows rules.   The rules may be light and they may be to our USA-oriented tastes but indeed they are there.  

  20. It is a shame, even for here us in germany. Only in bad countrys you can tell your story? Not any longer around the world? Shame on you Twitter!

  21. It’s called twittering in code, or is nonsense going to be withheld too? If you are acting subversively, you’re already tweeting in code.

    ~I drank Lady Gaga’s bathwater~


  22. It appears the alternatives available to Twitter are:

    1. Selectively censor tweets in some countries, and leave the same tweets visible in other countries (the new system they are instituting).

    2. Delete tweets completely, worldwide, when 1 country demands they be censored (the previous system).

    3. Refuse to delete any tweets ever, and as a result, have the entire service shut out of various countries altogether.

    They’ve made a compromise that is probably going to result in more access to
    communication for more people. 

    Oh, there’s also option 4: Twitter doesn’t censor any tweets anywhere, and everyone gets unrestricted access to the service.

    The only problem with that option is: it’s a fantasy.  It’s not on offer.  Governments, not Twitter, have taken that alternative off the table.

    1. > They’ve made a compromise that is probably going to result in more
      > access to communication for more people.  

      No, they’ve made a compromise that guarantees people will be looking for other avenues of communication. Sorry bro.

  23. Interesting global business strategy from Twitter. Censorship = establishment approved profit. Very weak. Why am I remembering Yahoo snitching out Chinese dissidents not long ago?

    Twitter is dead, long live Twitter.

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