An announcement from Twitter on Thursday that they will now be able to block users and tweets by country has led to fears it will allow restrictive regimes to quash movements towards freedom and obstruct the LGBT movement in the Middle East and North Africa. Previously Twitter could only block tweets and accounts globally.
Campaign group Gay Middle East is joining a Twitter blackout today, Saturday 28 January, to protest the move and is urging supporters to not tweet for 24 hours. Early on Saturday morning GMT tweets with the #twitterblackout hashtag were rolling out at about 20 a minute, with seven supporting the blackout, ten neutral and three against it.
Dan Littauer, executive editor for Gay Middle East said: '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 MENA. Users within the state where censorship is about to occur will not be able to co-ordinate protests or actions.'
Twitter said in their blog: 'As we continue to grow internationally, we will enter countries that have different ideas about the contours of freedom of expression… One of our core values as a company is to defend and respect each user's voice. We try to keep content up wherever and whenever we can, and we will be transparent with users when we can't. The Tweets must continue to flow.'
Twitter also posted a link to this page where records of complaints against them are made, mainly relating to copyright.
In an update on Friday, the microblogging site clarified that they will block tweets and users after they have been posted 'in response to what we believe to be a valid and applicable legal request'. On their help page, Twitter describe the circumstances in which they will censor content as 'if we receive a valid and properly scoped request from an authorized entity'. This could be interpreted as in response to a government's request.
Internet technology news website The Next Web have found that users can get around the restrictions by setting their account to another country. But users are only likely to find out about tricks such as this through Twitter itself. Littauer said Twitter is often used as a medium for communicating ways get to blocked sites in the Middle East and North Africa. 'Many users in this region rely on tweets to inform them about already blocked sites, such as ours, for example in Saudi Arabia,' he said. '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.'