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, http://chillingeffects.org/twitter, 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: http://www.chillingeffects.org... 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.