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Those limited circumstances mostly involve impersonating other people or disclosing their private and confidential information, committing trademark violations or copyright infringement, and posting “direct, specific threats of violence against others.” Harvey elaborates: “You cannot say to a specific person, ‘I’m coming over to your house right now with a baseball bat to kill you.’ ”
Twitter’s TOS wasn’t always so circumscribed. In the spring of 2008, the site was growing rapidly but still radiated a utopian feel. There wasn’t a lot of spam yet. There weren’t a lot of celebrities yet either—technology pundit Leo Laporte was the most popular figure on Twitter then, with just under 29,000 followers—so there wasn’t a lot of vicious heckler venom.
But of course there were exceptions. In June 2007, a “social-media insights consultant” named Ariel Waldman started receiving disparaging tweets from another user. She reported the tweets to Twitter, but the problem persisted. By May 2008 Waldman was fed up with the company’s reluctance to take significant action. In a detailed post on her personal blog, she explained how this person had publicly called her a “crack-whore” and worse, along with tweeting her full name and email address.
In Waldman’s estimation, these tweets clearly violated the TOS Twitter was operating under then, which stated that users “must not abuse, harass, threaten, impersonate, or intimidate other Twitter users.” While Waldman believed her antagonist’s tweets qualified as “harassment,” she reported on her blog that Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey had told her in a phone conversation that he felt Twitter’s TOS was “up for interpretation.”
In fact, the company eventually decided its TOS was up not just for interpretation but for outright revision. Instead of banning the user that had been targeting Waldman, Twitter eventually rewrote its TOS to clarify its position on the sorts of behavior it would and would not tolerate.
‘The Free Speech Wing of the Free Speech Party’
Changing the rules in the wake of Waldman’s complaint wasn’t exactly ideal timing from a public relations perspective. As Waldman pointed out in one of her posts on the matter, Twitter’s Web 2.0 peers, such as Flickr and Digg, were far more proactive about banning users who engaged in objectionable behavior.
Twitter, on the other hand, seemed content to let users fend for themselves. “Twitter recognizes that it is not skilled at judging content disputes between individuals,” company co-founder Biz Stone explained on a message board where people were discussing the matter. “Determining the line between update and insult is not something that Twitter, nor a crowd, would do well.”
While this may have been true, it was also true that Twitter could have insisted that users create profiles using their real identities. It could have implemented more rigorous authentication requirements, such as providing a credit card number. Instead it chose a path that seemed to involve the least amount of company effort.
But if Twitter’s newly articulated policy failed to protect its users from other users, it also effectively protected users from Twitter itself. Though the company “reserve[s] the right at all times (but will not have an obligation) to remove or refuse to distribute any Content” and “suspend or terminate users,” it constrains its ability to exercise these powers by characterizing itself in the way it does. Indeed, when you proclaim that you’re “the free speech wing of the free speech party,” as CEO Dick Costolo often does, that creates certain expectations. When you regularly assert that you do not mediate content, users will assume that you do not mediate content, even in cases when that content is highly objectionable.
This doesn’t mean Twitter never censors. During the 2012 Summer Olympics, for example, when the company had a partnership deal with NBC, it temporarily suspended the account of the British journalist Guy Adams after he critiqued an NBC executive and tweeted the executive’s NBC email address, an alleged violation of Twitter’s prohibition against tweeting another user’s private information. Because this action contradicted the company’s loudly professed values, however, Twitter suffered major fallout in the court of public opinion and acted quickly to make amends, reinstating Adams’ account within 48 hours and apologizing to him.
Far more common than incidents like this are ones where the free speech wing of the free speech party gives such free rein to its charges that the neighbors complain. In May 2011, the South Tyneside Council, a municipal government body in the U.K., obtained a court order in California that compelled Twitter to help identify a user known as “Mr. Monkey” who’d been using Twitter to disseminate allegedly libelous material about several members of the council. According to The Guardian, it was “believed to be the first time Twitter has bowed to legal pressure to identify anonymous users.” Twitter reportedly disclosed email addresses, mobile phone numbers, and IP addresses associated with the account to the Council’s attorneys.
Since then, requests like this have become increasingly common. In 2012, every month brought new high-profile cases of judges, law enforcement agencies, foreign governments, human rights organizations, and private citizens who wanted Twitter to identify users accused of wrongdoing, to delete offensive posts, and to ban objectionable accounts.
Over time, Trust & Safety and Twitter’s legal department (which now oversees Trust & Safety) have developed policies that allow Twitter to comply with country-specific free speech laws and yet still put users at the forefront. “Our mission statement within Trust & Safety is to ensure user trust, protect user rights, and craft and enforce policies to reduce legal risk,” Harvey says. “And that’s legal risk for Twitter and for users.”
Thus, when the company receives a court order or subpoena to disclose user information, it alerts the user in question, so that he or she has an opportunity to contest the disclosure before it happens. When local laws compel Twitter to delete posts or ban accounts in a given country, it does so in a narrow, transparent fashion, blocking the material locally rather than globally, and replacing the blocked material with a grayed-out alert box indicating that an act of officially mandated government censorship has taken place.