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No easy answers on Twitter's new censorship policy

The headline and opening paragraphs of this story were changed to more accurately characterize the sources' positions on the issue.

Experts were split Tuesday on whether Twitter's new policy to allow country-specific censorship represents a fundamental failure to protect free speech, is simply the price of doing business globally, or both.

Meg Roggensack, a senior adviser at Human Rights First, said Twitter effectively had sided with repressive governments rather than activists and citizens.

"There's really no middle here," she said, referring to Twitter and other technology companies. "Either you're on the side of an open Internet, or you're enabling repression. We really think that's the choice."

Roggensack was speaking at a panel discussion on global Internet freedom sponsored by the Media Access Project, a nonprofit law firm and advocacy group that supports freedom of expression online.

David Sullivan, policy director for the Global Network Initiative, disagreed. He said the social media company was making an inevitable compromise by agreeing to remove or prohibit information only in response to an official government request or court order and to clearly note when information had been removed. Twitter also has said it won't allow national governments to censor what's seen outside those countries, so some experts have suggested anyone who wants to Tweet something controversial, or to read controversial Tweets, simply can change the country location in their profile.

The Global Network Initiative is a voluntary coalition of technology company and civil society groups that have established a set of Internet freedom principles. Sullivan cited a Jan. 27 blog post by the Center for Democracy and Technology that said Twitter's new policy does not appear to violate those principles. Twitter is not a member of GNI, which was founded by Google, Yahoo and Microsoft in 2008.

The blog post, titled "For Twitter, Limiting Tweets Beats no Tweets," noted that the alternative to allowing censorship in some countries likely would be for Twitter to be blocked in those countries.

Facebook probably will face a similar compromise as it expands abroad following its recent initial public offering, panelists said. The yardstick to judge Facebook by, they said, will be whether it matches Twitter's attempt to achieve "transparent censorship."

"Censorship isn't my biggest concern, because it's something you can see," said Christopher Soghoian, a security and privacy researcher with the Open Society Foundation. Soghoian is more concerned, he said, with Web companies mining personal data, which can be used to aid law enforcement or litigants in the United States and by repressive regimes abroad.

Soghoian castigated Facebook for "build[ing] its whole business model on abusing people's privacy" and not sufficiently protecting users' accounts from being hacked into by malicious governments or law enforcement.

"What's most fascinating about the Facebook IPO to me," he said, "is that Facebook makes less than $5 per user per year . . . If consumers paid just $10 a year they could double their profits and do away with all these shady practices. Unfortunately, Facebook doesn't give users a choice. There's no way to pay for 'Facebook Pro,' for the sketchy-free experience."

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