New Twitter policy lets users see tweets pulled down for copyright (Update)

[UPDATE: Mikko Hypponen contacted us Monday morning to say he created the tweet below to highlight Twitter’s new DMCA policy; it did not represent an actual withdrawn tweet. The story has been updated accordingly. See further explanation below]

Twitter has made a significant shift in how it responds to copyright complaints. In the past, such complaints caused tweets to vanish without a trace but now people can see the place where a tweet once stood — and the reaction to its disappearance.

The new policy, reported in a tweet by a member of Twitter’s legal team, can be explained with an example. Let’s look at the Twitter account of @mikko, an executive with computer security firm F-Secure. This tweet appeared in Mikko’s feed on Saturday:

Mikko’s followers asked what happened:

[Update: As noted above, Mikko did not actually have a tweet removed. His tweet above can be considered an example at best or a hoax at worst. He wrote by email Tuesday morning:  “I read the Twitter support article about their new DMCA policy over the weekend. And just like you, I immediately tried finding an example of such a censored tweet. Since I couldn’t find any, I decided to create one. So yes, my tweet was a joke.” We apologize to readers.]

For the purpose of this story, Mikko’s prank is unfortunate but should not overshadow the bigger implication of Twitter’s new policy: tweets subject to a copyright notice no longer go down a memory hole. This is important to reporters and scholars who use Twitter as a news source and now have an explanation when a piece of news vanishes due to copyright reasons.

The tweet announcing the policy suggested it was in the name of “#transparency.” This is consistent with other efforts by Twitter to shine light on a copyright process that critics say is susceptible to abuse by content owners. In January, for instance, Twitter published 4,410 DMCA takedown requests it received in the previous year.

The DMCA refers to a law that gives internet companies like Twitter or Google immunity for copyrighted material posted by their users. To preserve this immunity, they have to take down users’ material when they receive a notice from a copyright owner; the target of the notice can then send a counter-notice saying the material should not be taken down.

In an email, a Twitter spokesman explained the change in policy this way:

[W]hen we get a valid DMCA request, we withhold the tweet until such time as we get (if we ever do) a valid counter-response from the user. In this case, if someone with the permalink tries to navigate to the tweet, they’ll see that it is being withheld for copyright reasons. We also send the requests to Chilling Effects for publication. Our prior policy was to delete the Tweet without any language explaining the takedown, then manually repost the Tweet if/when we got a valid counter response.

The new Twitter policy comes as both internet companies and copyright owners are growing frustrated with the existing DMCA regime. On one hand, content creators say it is too much effort to track and send DMCA notices for each infringement. On the other hand, rights owners may be growing trigger happy with notices; Google (s goog), for instance, is now receiving more than 1 million copyright requests a month, some of which are not justified and can create a “chilling effect” for users.