Twitter, the Self-Appointed Defender of Our Free Speech
To many of my friends — the majority parents of autistic children like myself — Twitter is another way to stay connected. Often, 140 characters are about all I have to time to read in the course of a day of teaching and caring for Charlie. I love the “real-time-ness” of Twitter and being able to exchange tweets with a friend time zones away.
More and more, though, Twitter has become a platform for a lot more than mom-chat. Twitter has become, or seeks to portray itself as having become, nothing less than the defender of free speech around the world, the “free-speech wing of the free-speech party,” says Mathew Ingram on GigaOM.
Twitter, Staunch Defender of Free Speech (Or So Twitter Wants Us To Think)
Twitter is fighting a Manhattan criminal court order to turn over all the tweets of Malcolm Harris, who has been charged with disorderly conduct related to an Occupy protest. The judge ruled that Harris’ tweets are no longer his; Twitter’s legal team, under general counsel Alexander Macgillivray, appealed the ruling last week, on the grounds that tweets belong to a user. Twitter also fought, but lost, a US Justice Department order to hand over data from three Wikileaks users, including direct messages (which are exchanged privately between users, rather than in Twitter’s gargantuan stream of user postings).
When law enforcement requests the tweets of a user, Twitter informs them unless it has a court order not to. Twitter goes out of its way to protect users’ privacy, allowing them to use pseudonyms and to delete the location of a photo. It has become a powerful tool for activists in, for instance, the Middle East, to spread the word about oppression and injustice under authoritarian governments.
As Macgillivray says in a recent New York Times article:
“We value the reputation we have for defending and respecting the user’s voice. We think it’s important to our company and the way users think about whether to use Twitter, as compared to other services.”
“We want to be useful to as many people as we can be useful to. We certainly do think about what is Twitter like for someone who has unpopular beliefs.”
Such idealistic and even noble statements are commendable. But Twitter is facing some major growing pains as it seeks to become profitable.
Will Twitter Still Protect Users’ Privacy If It Goes Public?
At present a private company, the pressure to generate revenue will only grow should Twitter go public. Plus, Twitter’s ongoing efforts to expand its international profile have led to it getting into disputes with the governments of other countries. Last month, the government of India demanded that Twitter take down certain accounts said to be instigating religious hatred; Twitter took down about half of the requested accounts, as these were impersonating India’s prime minister in violation of Twitter’s own rules.
Twitter (and other social media companies like Facebook) sometimes apply their own rules “in seemingly capricious ways,” writes Matt Buchanan on Buzz Feed in assessing Twitter’s removal of reporter Guy Adams’ account after he had been critical of NBC’s Olympics coverage and included the corporate email of an executive of NBC, a Twitter corporate partner. Revealing the tricky waters Twitter must navigate in its efforts to gain a profit, a Twitter employee, who was responsible for promoting corporate partnerships, had been tracking Adams’ account and had suggested that NBC file a complaint.
Macgillivray acknowledged this and had Adams’ account restored. In an apology — “we should not and cannot be in the business of proactively monitoring and flagging content, no matter who the user is” – Macgillivray was careful to emphasize Twitter’s self-appointed role as a campaigner for free speech.
Twitter in China: #FreeSpeechFail?
Twitter’s freedom of expression halo is burnished by its being currently banned in China. Twitter was blocked there in 2009, after the company made it possible for information about the July 2009 Ürümqi riots to spread without government censorship.
China’s largest information portal, Sina, runs a Twitter-like service, Weibo, that is massively popular in China but also carefully scrubbed by censors lest politically sensitive topics — the escape of dissident Chen Guangcheng from house arrest, for example — be discussed. As Vivian Ni noted on China Briefing earlier this year, it’s almost inevitable that Twitter will seek to regain entry into China to boost its global revenue.
Macgillivray claims there is a “church-state divide” between users’ tweets and the fact that it’s a company that needs to turn a profit. Should Twitter seek to return to China, it could find that principle endangered: would the Chinese government demand that tweets tagged with the name of dissident artist Ai WeiWei be blocked?
One thing’s for sure. Before Twitter, a “tweet” was an onomatopoeic word for bird sounds and part of the name of a big-headed yellow cartoon character. Thanks to Twitter, we now hear the likes of the New York Times intoning that “tweets belong to the user.” Who would have thought it was possible for so many people (judges, government officials, communist governments) to make such a big deal about a mere 140 characters?
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Photo by Paul Papadimitriou