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Twitter boycott looms with censorship accusations

When Twitter announced it would withhold tweets country-by-country based on local restrictions, it said it was being more transparent. But some users disagree.

Twitter users announcing they will participate in the January 28 Twitter boycott.
Screenshot by CNET

Some Twitter users are trying to wield the organizing power of the social-networking site against the site itself: they're using the hashtags #TwitterBlackout, #TwitterCensored, and #J28 to spread news of a Twitter boycott planned for tomorrow.

Yesterday,Twitter said it was willing to remove tweets on a country-by-country basis when there are local restrictions against content in the tweets, and when a country requires the tweets to be taken down. That's why these Twitter users are up in arms.

The company said the new plan promotes freedom of expression, transparency, and accountability because even though these tweets may be unavailable to people in a given country--they'll stay available to the rest of the world. Until now, the only way Twitter could operate in these countries was to remove offending tweets internationally.

Still, the fact that Twitter is removing tweets at all is causing many people to cry censorship.

An image displayed on the Reporters Without Borders Web site. Screenshot by CNET

"We are very disturbed by this decision, which is nothing other than local level censorship carried out in cooperation with local authorities and in accordance with local legislation, which often violates international free speech standards," Reporters Without Borders Director Olivier Basille wrote in a letter to Twitter today. "Twitter's position that freedom of expression is interpreted differently from country to country is inacceptable."

In its blog, Twitter said it hasn't started withholding tweets yet but that when it does it will let affected users know and will also post the information to anticensorship site Chilling Effects. However, Basille doesn't think that's enough. "The way this is defined is too vague and leaves the door open to all kinds of abuse," he wrote.

Basille is also concerned with what this means to countries currently involved in revolutions and collective demonstrations. Twitter is recognized as having a massive role in last year's Arab Spring uprisings, where dissidents were able to send information to the outside world instantaneously despite Internet shutdowns.

"By finally choosing to align itself with the censors, Twitter is depriving cyberdissidents in repressive countries of a crucial tool for information and organization," Basille wrote in his letter. Basille also claims the main reason Twitter agreed to this type of "censorship" is because it's trying to penetrate the Chinese market, where it has been blocked.

In response to the criticism, Twitter updated its blog today saying that users send 1 billion tweets every four days and that Twitter won't be filtering out certain tweets. "With this new feature, we are going to be reactive only: that is, we will withhold specific content only when required to do so in response to what we believe to be a valid and applicable legal request," Twitter wrote in its blog.

On a similar note, Twitter has also added all deleted tweets that are linked to pirated versions of copyrighted content to the Chilling Effects Web site. Twitter gets requests to remove copyrighted content from companies that cite the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. As of today, Chilling Effects is showing 4,410 Twitter-related cease-and-desist notices, which date back to November 2010.

In other Twitter news, the social-media site will have more brand pages by next week. Certain companies, like Coca-Cola, Disney, Nike, and PepsiCo, have committed to spending at least $25,000 in advertising on Twitter and therefore will get more logo visibility, including larger header images and the ability to keep a specific tweet at the top of the timeline.