Twitter: Free Speech in 140 Characters

The virtues of pseudonymity in an age of full disclosure

(Page 2 of 3)

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. 

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • RenkBooo||

    lol, never thought about it like that dude.

  • ||

    Well, Colour-Bot, I see the irony is lost upon thee.

  • JeremyR||

    After struggling to understand twitter (and smartphones in general), I now know what my grandmother felt like trying to use the remote control for the TV.

  • Cdr Lytton||

    From perverted justice to twitter... Is Chris Hansen the driving force behind tumblr?

  • grey||

    A way to have a type of international free speech, whats not to love. Everyone can be a a town crier. No pun intended. Suckerberg should go back to Orwellian School and spend a few hours with his head in hungry rats cage for suggesting we all get our government issued net ID. People are insulted, make them be quiet. Obama insults my intelligence daily, nobody has suggested muzzling that asshole.

  • Government Hack||

    So what is the deal with Twitter? I'm younger than 30, but I have had absolutely zero interest in using the service. Nothing worth saying can be said in such a short space.

  • grey||

    It's a top shelf newsfeed, I subscribe to AP, Reason, a few science related, a few local news, and a few humor sites like the Onion. I don't tweet, but since you can customize who you follow it's the best newsfeed you'll find. And most tweets link to a picture or article, so once you read the headline you can decide if you want to know more. It hasn't replaced my WSJ, but its replaced my local newspaper and magazine subscriptions.

  • Government Hack||

    Ah. Well, I guess I am content for now with The Economist as my news aggregator.

  • Matt_S||

    “fuck that racist Asian looking hoe!”

    Oh the irony. I can never be sure if they are serious or just trolling.

  • grey||

    They are serious. I tried to understand and find the 'common ground' and have 'dialogue' about race, ethics, and law. What a waste of time. Like many words, racism has a different definition to the socialists. It is a title of victimhood bestowed upon political allies to help win in political conflict. It has no other modern meaning. I have determined it has nothing to do with: minority status, ethics, concepts of racial inferiority or superiority, racial biases, stereotyping, discrimination, equal application of the law for all races, or any other measure or definition which a reasoned person might use to describe the term.

    -Racism is a weapon granted Democratic political allies, the wielder of the weapon need not have been a harmed, oppressed, discriminated against, or even inconvenienced in this life. They are using this weapon nearly non-stop now, I hear the word like the chattering of gunfire from every news source. The SOLE qualification to be handed this powerful weapon: Ally of the Left.

  • mtrueman||

    If the charges of racism are so meaningless and empty of content, why is it such a ¨powerful weapon¨ against the right?

    I think your analysis is lacking unless you can answer that question.

  • grey||

    I never said it wasn't successful or that it's actual meaning (and real history of racism baked into law) didn't still give the word power with the masses. Because of the socialist use of the word, it's forced me to come to another understanding of its meaning when used by a socialist.

    How often do you see documented cases of racism with evidential support in the media used with the intent to drive social change or even regulatory change and how often have you seen it used only as a weapon without evidential support to discredit political foes? I see almost only the latter.

  • mtrueman||

    ¨to discredit political foes¨

    That´s certainly true, and you can add that claiming victimhood is also a way to further ones own agenda, on the left or the right. Here´s a short passage from Don DeLillo´s long novel ¨Underworld¨ on the phenomenon in the corporate world:

    ¨In the bronze tower we used the rhetoric of aggrieved minorities to prevent legislation that would hurt our business. Arthur Blessing believed, our CEO, that true feeling flows upward from the streets, fully accessible to corporate adaptation. We learned how to complain, how to appropriate the language of victimization. Arthur listened to gangsta rap on the car radio every morning. Songs about getting mad and getting laid and getting even, taking what's rightfully ours by violent means if necessary. He believed this was the only form of address that made an impact on Washington. Arthur recited lyrics to me once on the company plane and together we laughed his wacko laugh, those enunciated ha-has, clear and slow and well spaced, like laughing with words.¨

  • Thomas4||

    my buddy's half-sister makes $72/hour on the internet. She has been unemployed for nine months but last month her pay was $18223 just working on the internet for a few hours. Read more on this site http://www.FLY38.COM

  • Stacy56||

    just as Alfred replied I am surprised that a mother can make $4084 in four weeks on the computer. did you see this page http://www.FLY38.COM

  • دردشة بغدادية||

    Nicest chat and chat Iraqi entertaining Adject all over the world

  • Tobias4||

    If you think Frederick`s story is super,, in the last-month my friends bro also got paid $5167 putting in twelve hour's a week at home and their roomate's ex-wife`s neighbour has been doing this for five months and made more than $5167 in their spare time on their computer. the guidelines on this web-site... http://www.FLY38.COM

  • grey||

    My Onion Feed on Twitter:

    "This Week's top Video | 'The State of the Union is Strong,' says Man Burdened with Protecting Us From the Truth.


Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.