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Micro-blogging phenomenon Twitter has modified its commitment to the free flow of information online by adding a new feature enabling the removal of users' tweets at a country level while allowing them to be viewed elsewhere.

In a move many will see as a thinly veiled attempt to cosy up to repressive regimes and maybe even make its service China-friendly, Twitter said that the update would help it comply with local laws.

Previously the firm was only able to block tweets on a global level. A user will know if content has been removed because they will see a grayed out tweet in their timeline indicating access has been withheld.

Here’s what Twitter had to say:

As we continue to grow internationally, we will enter countries that have different ideas about the contours of freedom of expression. Some differ so much from our ideas that we will not be able to exist there. Others are similar but, for historical or cultural reasons, restrict certain types of content, such as France or Germany, which ban pro-Nazi content.

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.

Rather compassionately, Twitter said it hasn’t yet used these new powers.

It added that in the spirit of transparency it had created a new page in collaboration with cease and desist site Chilling Effects designed to make it easier for users to find notices asking Twitter to block content.

It wasn’t always this way.

Twitter was at the centre of the Arab Spring uprisings where it acted as a platform for free speech and helped protesters spread their message and organise themselves. In fact it was so successful that Hosni Mubarak’s regime blocked the service as part of its desperate attempt to cling on to power in Egypt. ®

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