New Twitter censorship function prompts concern in anti-gay states

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Twitter’s announcement that it will be able to censor tweets on a country-by-country basis has prompted concern for gay communities in hostile countries.

The move will allow the popular micro-blogging site to comply with local governments’ request to block certain content or users.

Previously, Twitter would block tweets and accounts across the world, but the micro-blogging site said it was introducing the new policy of country-specific censorship as it expands into states “that have different ideas about the contours of freedom of expression”.

The site is currently banned in China and was inaccessible for a time during the Egyptian protests of early 2011.

But concerns have been raised by some commentators that the new technology could be used to begin reactively censoring content relevant to gay communities in countries who request it.

Twitter wrote in a blog post last week: “Until now, the only way we could take account of those countries’ limits was to remove content globally. 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.”

Twitter will replace the text of a censored post with a greyed-out tweet reading, “This tweet from @username has been withheld in: Country. Learn more.”

Announcing the move, Twitter said: “There’s no magic to the timing of this feature. We’ve been working to reduce the scope of withholding, while increasing transparency, for a while. We have users all over the world and wanted to find a way to deal with requests in the least restrictive way.”

Dan Littauer, Executive Editor for Gay Middle East said: “We are very concerned about this new development. Twitter has an enormous impact in spreading news and media, especially regarding Human Rights, including LGBT rights across the world and in particular the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).”

“Twitter has been essential, for example, in helping the Arab Spring protests and also spread of information regarding LGBT issues in the Middle East and North Africa. Users within the state where censorship is about to occur will not be able to co-ordinate protests or actions.”

“Furthermore, many users in this region rely on tweets to inform them about already blocked sites, such as ours, for example in Saudi Arabia. This allows the Twitter users to use technology to bypass the censorship.

“This means that if LGBT related tweets and users will be censored across some or all of the MENA countries it will make it so much harder to communicate and even know about censorship itself in that country. This is a very dangerous precedent.”

Members of Gay Middle East questioned whether Twitter’s decision was related to the SOPA and PIPA initiatives as well as the recent acquisition of a stake in Twitter’s company by the Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal.

Shamil, Gay Middle East Editor of Saudi Arabia and the UAE remarked: “Just like any purchase by a person of power within the Kingdom, investor pressure could be brought to bear on a myriad of issues at anytime, where restrictions could be made to apply in the Kingdom itself, which already has censorship.

“This could result in some influence on blocking LGBT tweets, but only in the Kingdom itself.”

Littauer said that blocking the word “gay” and associated LGBT terms on Bing – the Microsoft flagship search engine – has been a practice by the Kingdom and other Arab countries.

He said: “There was a possibility that such restrictions could arise due to the increased presence of such a political figure.” has asked Twitter for comment on how the technology could affect gay and transgender communities in hostile countries.

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