On January 26, Twitter announced that it will remove Tweets on a country-by-country basis. Recognizing that freedom of expression is a “human right,” Twitter also acknowledged the “responsibilities” and “limits” that accompany such a right, especially in countries such as France or Germany, where pro-Nazi content is banned by law. Previously, Twitter could only implement global bans – no matter where the Tweet was posted, no one in the world could see the Tweet if it was taken down. Now, only persons from the originating country will be blocked, while the rest of the world can still see an offending Tweet. This country-by-country policy would help Twitter comply with laws that vary by country. The New York Times observed that the majority of Twitter’s 100 million users live overseas, and that Twitter was confronting the complexities of being both a free speech tool and commercial venture.
Unsurprisingly, the revised policy has sparked considerable controversy, resulting in an immediate “Twitter Blackout” on January 28. But others have remarked that Twitter is balancing the values behind free speech with necessary compliance with foreign and local laws. One commentator remarked how Twitter was the only company to fight the United States government over the Wikileaks case, and Twitter informed users when it lost. The policy has also been praised for its transparency, as users are notified when infringing Tweets are removed, and Twitter will post updates relating to notices on the “Chilling Effects” website, http://chillingeffects.org/twitter.
Questions linger, however, over what circumstances will dictate removal of a Tweet. In his blog, Professor Eric Goldman focused on how Twitter will remove illegal messages “only if the authorities there make a valid request.” What is a valid request? The Times of India theorized that if there is a clear, specific law (such as laws against pro-Nazi propaganda), then Twitter can block Tweets proactively. But if the laws were general, then Twitter would likely respond to a foreign court order.
There may also be ways to circumvent the policy, such as manually overriding the country code for your IP address. But ultimately, only time will tell how many Tweets are removed, either proactively or retroactively, and what laws those Tweets have violated. In this sense, Twitter’s transparency will be essential to analyzing whether the revised policy actually has a deterrent effect on free speech around the world.