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Summary:

Twitter CEO Dick Costolo talked about the company’s recent growth during an interview at the Web 2.0 conference, but he also made some strong statements about Twitter’s commitment to free speech and to defending the rights of its users against governments in Britain and the U.S.

During an interview at the Web 2.0 conference on Monday, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo talked a lot about the company’s growth, including the fact that it now gets a quarter of a billion tweets a day and that sign-ups have exploded, thanks to the integration with Apple’s new mobile operating system. But for me, the most interesting comments he made were about the philosophy that drives the company — and specifically, Twitter’s approach to matters like freedom of speech, identity and requests from governments in Britain and the United States to either hand over user data or shut the network down during times of unrest.

I’ve argued before that while Twitter often gets lumped in with social networks like Facebook and Google+, it isn’t really a “social” network in the same sense as those two, since it doesn’t involve things like web games and photo galleries. Instead, it’s much more of a real-time information network — one that can be used to make jokes about the latest internet meme, but can also be used by protesters in Tahrir Square in Egypt to organize and coordinate their revolt against an oppressive government. It is clearly a social network in the way it behaves, but it is primarily about sharing information rather than updates about your Mafia Wars position or your birthday photos.

“The free-speech wing of the free-speech party”

Being used by dissidents in Tunisia and Egypt and Iran and elsewhere to communicate information, and allowing virtually anyone to commit acts of “citizen journalism” (as Sohaib Athar of Pakistan did when he live-tweeted the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound) is a pretty vital role to play, and part of the ongoing disruption of media that Om has called the “democratization of distribution.” So it’s refreshing to hear Costolo putting a stake in the ground about freedom of speech. As he put it in his interview, quoting Twitter’s general counsel Alex MacGillivray:

We are the free-speech wing of the free-speech party.

This isn’t just an idle boast either — Twitter’s commitment to this principle has been put to the test more than once already. In Britain, the company was hauled on the carpet by the British authorities along with Facebook and Research In Motion after the riots in London, because the governing party was considering blocking access to networks such as Twitter and BlackBerry instant messaging. In his Web 2.0 interview, Costolo said that the company resisted this idea, and instead pointed out that many of the Twitter messages about the riot were actually about cleaning up or promoting good behavior rather than inciting violence as many critics of the service seemed to suggest. Said Costolo:

One of our core values is respect and the need to defend the user’s voice.

In another recent test of its commitment to the principle, Twitter fought a court battle that ultimately forced the U.S. government to let the company notify several users — including prominent hacker Jacob Appelbaum and Icelandic member of parliament Birgitta Jonsdottir — that the authorities were looking for data from their accounts as part of the Justice Department’s campaign against Wikileaks. Although other companies such as Facebook were reportedly also served with similar orders, Twitter was the only one of those companies to publicly fight the motion (although Google has fought a similar court order). Costolo said that the company believed very strongly that it should do so:

We went back of our own accord and argued for the right to let those four people know that their information was being requested so that they could fight it. We provided these users with the ability to fight this request and I think a bunch of them are still doing so. That’s how we will behave in those cases where we can.

Defending the right to use pseudonyms

Another important point about Twitter’s approach to these kinds of matters, as I’ve pointed out before, is that the company is prepared to defend the speech of its users even though it doesn’t know who they are — since Twitter, unlike both Facebook and Google+, doesn’t have a “real names” policy. As 4chan founder Christopher “Moot” Poole noted in his presentation at Web 2.0 (which was very similar to a speech he made at a recent TED conference), the insistence by Facebook and Google that users have only one “real” name may be designed to prevent abusive behavior, but it also winds up excluding a lot of potentially beneficial activity as well.

In some cases, that activity comes from people like the dissidents in Egypt and Iran and Libya, whose desire to use social networks to further their cause was made even more dangerous by Facebook’s blocking of pseudonyms, as Jillian York of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Global Voices has pointed out. It’s good to see that Twitter remains committed not just to freedom of speech and fighting for its users, but to a more flexible view of online identity as well.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Jennifer Moo and Petteri Sulonen

  1. Roan Blackburn Tuesday, October 18, 2011

    Thanks, gigaom, GREAT article!

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    1. Thanks, Roan. Glad you appreciated it.

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  2. I really like all of this. Sometimes our identities need to be altered. We all have splintering identities online, communicating different thoughts and ideals depending on the social network. I think constricting that into a single identity as Facebook or Google+ is championing is a little too narrow minded. We need a balance between the two and I am glad Twitter is doing that for us. Great article. Thanks!

    -Dan

    http://www.whoisdanfonseca.com

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  3. He claims freedom of speech, what about freedom to trend. Occupy Wall Street hasn’t trended in one major city in five weeks despite being one of the hottest topics. We live in a country no longer represented by the people but by the interests of major corporations and the money they use through lobbying to pay off our elected officials. These politicians no longer voice the opinion of the voters who put them in office but instead speak for the special interests which pay them more and more money to turn a blind eye to the destruction of our environment and the extinction of the middle class. How long will the occupations have to last before a SINGLE government official asks what WE the PEOPLE want changed? Visit my artist’s blog at http://dregstudiosart.blogspot.com/2011/09/occupywallstreet.html to see my art for the movement and also see videos of the protests and police brutality as well as get other sources for coverage of the movement.

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    1. Brandt,
      I work for Twitter and there has been ZERO censorship of OWS. Trending is algorythmic and much more difficult in major metropolitan cities. An OWS supporter who happens to work in tech recently did an article on this and verified that nothing was censored. I’m on my phone otherwise I’d include the link.

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  4. Very informative article. “Freedom of speech is not Freedom if it costs someone else.”

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  5. T V Krishnamurthy Wednesday, October 19, 2011

    There is no freedom of speech without right to anonymity. It is strange that so called free nations like USA and England want to restrict freedom of expression only when their governments are threatened. They are part of the new middle east shaikdoms.

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