A little local censorship is less of an evil compared to messages being fully scrubbed out from the public domain worldwide. That would seem to be the logic behind micro-blogging website Twitter's proposed system of reactively withholding tweets in a specific country when there is a valid request from a legal authority. Under it, if such a request is received, some of the messages of users will go missing on the service, and only show up as a box declaring that they have been “withheld”. The jury is out on whether the new system will silence activists and campaigners; already, some users are talking of workarounds. Twitter acquired a reputation for aiding mass protests and creating strong social networks, notably in the Arab Spring and Occupy movements. Whether or not revolutions are fanned by determined ‘tweeple', even 140 characters with a strong message can be too much for authoritarian regimes. Rulers in many countries are uncomfortable that Twitter is now a household name, and its reach, at a billion tweets put out every four days, nightmarish. The actual effects of the micro-censorship are yet to unfold, but activists have a point when they say internet giants are too willing to make compromises on online freedoms in return for expanded business opportunities.

If easy censorship is a happy prospect for intolerant regimes, there is also the accompanying odium of being listed on a web-based rogues gallery maintained by researchers, such as Chilling Effects, to which Twitter will pass on their demands. India, which has gained notoriety for making many requests (mostly without success) to purge search results, blogs, YouTube videos, and so on for political reasons, must resist a further slide into intolerance for online speech. The Google Transparency Report for the country shows that during the first half of 2011, the majority of demands for censoring content came from executive agencies. Only a handful were backed by a court order. What makes the loss of online freedoms particularly disturbing is the lack of due process that must accompany an invasion of privacy in the physical world — court authorisation to access personal information, enter the home, sift through materials, and make seizures. In democratic societies, it would be unthinkable for governments to violate the privacy of individuals in the way that web services and internet companies are being asked to. There is also the question that if commercial services looking for greater profit can be manipulated by governments, would it not be more attractive to develop non-profit, open source software, and social networking alternatives? Twitter and others like it who crave the support of millions must decide whose side they are on, oppressive regimes or the citizen.

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