If required by law, Twitter says now ready to censor

(CBS News) -- Twitter now says it has the technological ability to censor individual tweets or accounts in different countries.

It hasn't yet pulled the trigger but the company said in a post Thursday that it will be able to remove content under the laws of another country. Those posts would still be viewable to Twitter users outside of those countries.

"As we continue to grow internationally, we will enter countries that have different ideas about the contours of freedom of expression. Some differ so much from our ideas that we will not be able to exist there. Others are similar but, for historical or cultural reasons, restrict certain types of content, such as France or Germany, which ban pro-Nazi content."

Until now, Twitter's only recourse was to remove content globally - or ignore the request entirely.

"Starting today, we give ourselves the ability to reactively withhold content from users in a specific country -- while keeping it available in the rest of the world. We have also built in a way to communicate transparently to users when content is withheld, and why."

The company did not get into specifics but in a separate post Twitter said that if it's served with a "valid and properly scoped request from an authorized entity," the company might "withhold access to certain content in a particular country from time to time."

Cease and desist notices sent to Twitter are displayed on the site Chilling Effects.

Needless to say, the announcement triggered a torrent of worried speculation on the service with many users expressing concerns about the very same technology that proved so valuable a tool in helping keep alive protest movements in the Middle East over the past year. Several people posed the hypothetical scenario where a regime facing revolution might issue a decree outlawing tweets. In that situation, would Twitter turn off the cyber spigot? That's a natural - albeit, perhaps exaggerated - fear. As blogger Danny Sullivan correctly noted, Twitter views this as "a reactive tool" and nothing like the installation of global filters.

In those sorts of situations, he said that it's more likely the authorities "either ignore Twitter (good for freedom of expression) or block it entirely (bad, but also out of Twitter's control)."

© 2012 CBS Interactive Inc.. All Rights Reserved.

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