Twitter to Censor Tweets Country-by-Country

Twitter's logo. Loic Venance/AFP/Getty Images

ABC News' Kevin Dolak and Ned Potter Report:

Twitter has announced a new plan that will allow it to censor users' tweets on a country-by-country basis if governments object to them. It says the policy is an attempt to keep doing business in countries, such as China, that do not welcome all expression.

On the company's blog  Twitter said it will now withhold offending content within the specific country that censors the language, while leaving it unaltered  for the rest of the world. It will also post a censorship notice whenever a tweet is removed.

"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," the company said.

"If and when we are required to withhold a tweet in a specific country, we will attempt to let the user know, and we will clearly mark when the content has been withheld," said the company. "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."

A censored post, the company said, would be labeled "Tweet withheld. This Tweet from @Username has been withheld in: Country." There would be a link to an explanation of the policy.

Twitter and other Internet companies are trying to strike a difficult balance. The Internet is by nature global - and companies want to reach as many countries as they can - but they cannot go around local laws.

"Twitter has been very thoughtful in trying to operate in a way that allows them to operate despite these limits," said Cynthia Wong, director of the Global Internet Freedom Project at the Center for Democracy & Technology in Washington. "At least they're trying to limit the harm to free expression."

Having grown to 100 million users in six years, Twitter has been used as a tool for social uprisings around the world in the past year, from the Occupy Wall Street movement to the Arab Spring protests across the Middle East.

"As we continue to grow internationally, we will enter countries that have different ideas about the contours of freedom of expression," said Twitter's blog post.

Twitter's new policy was met with objections via - what else? - Twitter posts. A group called Demand Progress posted a petition to the company: "We need you to keep fighting for and enabling freedom of expression - not rationalize away totalitarianism as a legitimate 'different idea.'"

But the First Amendment in the U.S. is not widely matched around the world. Twitter pointed out that France and Germany ban pro-Nazi comments as hate speech. And its new censorship policy could also apply to South Korea's 2010 ban on North Korea's Twitter account. South Korea's Communications Standards Commission said it contained "illegal information."

Twitter is currently blocked in China, where in 2010 Google had a highly publicized face-off with the country's government. Google finally stopped censoring online searches in China and directed users to its servers in Hong Kong, where the rules are looser.

"It's understandable that users will be upset" with Twitter's new policy, said Wong, "but there's only so much a company can do to push back against governments."