Twitter's move to comply with government requests and block tweets in specific countries could blunt its edge as a political tool, but there may be an upside in helping to unmask censorship, some privacy experts believe.
Twitter now has the ability to remove a tweet from its users' feeds in a particular country, the company announced last week. Twitter said that it hasn't done so yet but might act on a government's request. Previously, Twitter could only block a message all over the world.
After Twitter's role in helping protesters in Egypt and other countries to organise revolts that overthrew dictators, the prospect of the company complying with foreign governments' speech restrictions has alarmed some observers.
The danger of making Twitter conform to the contours of local expression, as drawn by national governments, is that the very freedom that has made the service such a powerful tool for change in the past may not be there next time, said Craig Newman, an attorney at the New York law firm Richards Kibbe & Orbe.
"It is going to make it a lot more difficult for people to use Twitter to get information out of countries if that information violates the country's content restrictions," Newman said.
However, Twitter also said it will notify users when a tweet or account has been blocked and will disclose the source and details of the request on the website of Chilling Effects, a project that tracks constraints on online content.
Its openness could make the new policy a double-edged sword, according to Newman. "This could create a window into censorship in other countries," he said.
"It's a mixed bag," said Eva Galperin, an activist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an internet civil rights group that has long advocated for freedom of expression online. EFF helped to establish Chilling Effects, though it's no longer involved in its operation. Twitter's transparency may help to balance out the danger of suppressing voices, she said.
"By giving activists a way to track internet censorship on Twitter, they are giving us a tool with which to go after the real culprits, which are the governments that have these censorship laws," Galperin said.
Twitter defended the new steps in an update to its blog post.
"In short, we believe the new, more granular approach to withheld content is a good thing for freedom of expression, transparency, accountability - and for our users. Besides allowing us to keep Tweets available in more places, it also allows users to see whether we are living up to our freedom of expression ideal," Twitter said.
EFF encouraged Twitter to start disclosing that information last year. The company follows in the footsteps of Google, which notifies users when it has blocked a search term in response to a legal request. Some other social media companies, such as Facebook, don't mark where information has been removed.
"Most companies approach this issue by preventing certain content from being shown to users in the countries where it is illegal. That is our approach as well," Facebook said.
Twitter already removes some tweets in response to requests based on copyright issues. It now provides the text of those requests on a Twitter section of the Chilling Effects site.
Twitter's expansion into other countries, with actual operations on the ground, is at the heart of the issue, according to Newman and Galperin. Twitter currently has operations in the US, the UK and Japan.
"Once Twitter starts opening offices in other countries, it is bound by their laws, including their somewhat different ideas about what you can and can't publish online," Galperin said. Once the company has employees in a given country, defying the government could put their employees at risk, she said.
"This creates a hugely difficult ethical question for Twitter and for Internet companies in general," Newman said.