Legal questions about Twitter ‘censorship’ and country-specific content control – Judith Townend

31 01 2012

Media reports of Twitter’s newly announced country-specific content policy have focused on the implication for authoritarian regimes low down the press freedom table.  But its application in the UK raises interesting questions too: which authorities will Twitter respond to and to what types of complaint?

Twitter has not disclosed the finer details of its policy, as it does not want “to comment on hypothetical situations“. That was the line from Twitter’s media office as well its head of global public policy, Colin Crowell who appeared in front of the Joint Committee on Privacy and Injunctions on Monday.

It should be noted that Twitter already removes contentious content from its platform; the new development is that they have developed the tools to do it on a country-by-country basis – ie. what is censored in China is not censored to a reader in Britain (and vice versa).

Privacy injunctions are an obvious scenario to consider in the context of English law. When the Joint Committee raised the issue with Crowell on Monday he said he didn’t “pretend to know exactly how an injunction process would work“.  According to Twitter’s media office and Crowell, Twitter has not yet had to deal with the “super injunction” situation yet.

Twitter’s policy is general, although copyright infringement C&D notices dominate the Chilling Effects site, which Twitter is using to post removals. Crowell told the committee that the Twitter would deal with requests from an “authorised entity“. Similarly, Twitter’s media office told me that it “will evaluate each request to remove content that comes from an authorized entity and determine whether or not that content needs to be withheld, reactively, from the site“.

I asked Twitter’s media office what such an “authorized entity” might be – a national court, a government, or the complainant directly? Would specific legal action need to be taken?

“We can’t give more detail on what constitutes an authorized entity because it will be different depending on the situation, the law, the country, etc,” I was told. “There are just too many variables with this stuff to make across the board generalized statements.

If content is withheld in a specific country, users in that country will see a grey “tweet withheld” box and Twitter will also report that removal to Chilling Effects.

The Chilling Effects page will be a useful tool for legal researchers like myself, but presumably in the case of a privacy injunction the specific “withheld” information will not be disclosed to a British audience, as it would rather defeat the object of the removal.

My questions for Twitter:

  • You have mentioned the Chilling Effect Clearing House project, which deals mainly with copyright C&D Notices. Will you also log defamation, data protection and privacy complaints there?
  • Some media reports have concentrated on ‘government’ requests to remove content but your blog post seemed more ambiguous – does it cover other types of legal complaints too?
  • If you receive an English court order (eg. in defamation case, or reporting restriction) would you block content globally, or only to an English & Welsh audience? Either way, could you explain that position, in relation to the general policy?
  • At what stage will tweets be removed from certain audiences: in response to informal complaints from users? Or would it have to be a legal complaint (letters before action and/or claim form?)
  • How big is your legal team dealing with complaints and how do you manage the process of deciding whether to remove content to certain audiences?

Judith Townend is a freelance journalist and PhD researcher examining legal restraints on the media, who runs the Meeja Law blog. She is @jtownend on Twitter.


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