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Many of the critics assailing the new policy suggested that it was devised as part of a long-term plan for Twitter to enter China, where its service is currently blocked.

China’s Communist Party remains highly sensitive to any organized challenge to its rule and responded sharply to the Arab Spring, cracking down last year after calls for a “Jasmine Revolution” in China. Many Chinese nonetheless find ways around the so-called Great Firewall that has blocked social networking sites such as Facebook.

Google for several years agreed to censor its search results in China to gain better access to the country’s vast population, but stopped that practice two years after engaging in a high-profile showdown with Chain’s government. Google now routes its Chinese search results through Hong Kong, where the censorship rules are less restrictive.

Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt declined to comment on Twitter’s action and instead limited his comments to his own company.

“I can assure you we will apply our universally tough principles against censorship on all Google products,” he told reporters in Davos, Switzerland.

Google’s chief legal officer, David Drummond, said it was a matter of trying to adhere to different local laws.

“I think what they (Twitter officials) are wrestling with is what all of us wrestle with _ and everyone wants to focus on China, but it is actually a global issue _ which is laws in these different countries vary,” Drummond said.

“Americans tend to think copyright is a real bad problem, so we have to regulate that on the Internet. In France and Germany, they care about Nazis’ issues and so forth,” he added. “In China, there are other issues that we call censorship. And so how you respect all the laws or follow all the laws to the extent you think they should be followed while still allowing people to get the content elsewhere?”

Craig Newman, a New York lawyer and former journalist who has advised Internet companies on censorship issues, said Twitter’s new policy and the subsequent backlash are both understandable, given the difficult ethical issues at stake.

On one hand, he said, Twitter could put its employees in peril if it was deemed to be breaking local laws.

“On the other hand, Twitter has become this huge social force and people view it as some sort of digital town square, where people can say whatever they want,” he said. “Twitter could have taken a stand and refused to enter any countries with the most restrictive laws against free speech.”

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Associated Press writers Paul Schemm in Rabat, Morocco; Michael Liedtke in San Francisco; Peter Orsi in Havana, Cuba; Cara Anna in New York and Ben Hubbard in Cairo contributed to this report.