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Twitter has announced it now has 'the ability' to withhold tweets from users based on the restrictions of their country

Credit: Rosaura Ochoa on Flickr. Some rights reserved.
Press freedom group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is preparing an open letter to the chief executive of Twitter, to raise concerns about an announcement that the social media platform now has the power to "reactively withhold" tweets from users to meet country-based restrictions.

In a blog post on Thursday (26 January), Twitter said previously it would deal with the different restrictions on freedom of expression in countries by taking content down "globally", but that it now has "the ability to reactively withhold content from users in a specific country".

Such content would remain available to "the rest of the world", the company adds, highlighting that it is "also built in a way to communicate transparently to users when content is withheld, and why".

In response to this decision, widely reported in the media as a move which would effectively "censor" tweets, Reporters Without Borders said there could be "real consequences" for journalists and freedom of information, and is preparing an open letter to Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey, asking for more details on the way this "ability" will be carried out.

Head of the new media desk at RSF Lucie Morillon said the organisation is "very concerned" but is still trying to "grasp the extent" of the consequences.

"Clearly if Twitter is ready to abide by repressive countries then there are real consequences for journalists, bloggers ... It's not only about cyberdissidents from Syria getting information out, but about journalists being able to get information and help circulate it. Then the chain of information is broken."

She also told Journalism.co.uk that such a move would "go completely against recent events in the Arab world".

"Twitter had taken a good decision back then in Egypt with its 'Speak to Tweet' telephone service with Google", which was set up amid the internet blackout last year.

Morillon added that the impact of this move by Twitter is "a different story" when applied in democratic countries where "you can see the rule of law should be more or less OK", although she said there is still a "need to stay vigilant".

But she said RSF is concerned about the pressure to withhold information in countries such as China, Iran and Bahrain.

She added that it was unclear whether Twitter would wait for a judicial order, to make a decision, "or if a simple call from the authorities will be enough".

At the moment she said it is "very vague" and raised "a lot of questions", which RSF's letter is likely to ask for answers to.

But she added that allowing a "different version of freedom of expression according to different countries" would be "completely unacceptable".

"It is all the more worrying as Twitter is a Western-based company. I don't see what the business value is. I would like to see how the assessment was made by Twitter."

She added: "It is important for us and all people who care about freedom of expression to put pressure on Twitter and call on the company to reverse this policy."

In its blog post, Twitter said it is keen to "enter countries that have different ideas about the contours of freedom of expression", but stressed that there will be countries where their approach "differ so much from our ideas that we will not be able to exist there".

But the company said there are other countries with "similar" ideas, such as France and Germany, where "for historical or cultural reasons" certain content is restricted.

The post adds that it has not yet put this into practice, "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".

A Twitter spokesman told Journalism.co.uk: "We look at each complaint individually and make a determination based on the information we have at our disposal, which may include legal confirmation of a law being broken".

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