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When it comes to free speech, Twitter is caught between a rock and a very hard place

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Twitter has spent tens of millions of dollars trying to become what CEO Dick Costolo has called “a global town square,” and with 200 million users in dozens of different countries it has come pretty close to achieving that goal. But what happens when the town square is filled with sexual abuse or death threats or other bad behavior? That’s the conflict the company finds itself in right now, as it tries to battle a firestorm of criticism over its lack of action in cases like those of British journalist Caroline Criado-Perez.

As we explained in a recent post, Criado-Perez was subjected to what she says were hundreds of abusive and violent messages — many threatening rape and some even worse — in a matter of hours earlier this week, in what appeared to be a co-ordinated attack that lasted for several days. The abuse was apparently directed at Criado-Perez because she supported putting pictures of prominent women on British banknotes.

Twitter: We are trying

Criado-Perez and her supporters, including some prominent British politicians and fellow journalists, have complained that Twitter’s existing methods for dealing with such abuse are insufficient, since they require a user to fill out an online form to report each incident. Twitter has since said that it is implementing a “report abuse” button for its apps — but critics note that all this does is automate the existing reporting process that uses the same form.

Del Harvey, who runs Twitter’s trust and safety unit, wrote a blog post for Twitter’s UK blog entitled “We Hear You,” in which she tried to strike a balance between the network’s size and the need to respond to legitimate complaints about abuse. And it’s easy to see the company’s point — it handles more than 400 million tweets every day, and even if abusive tweets were some small proportion of that number, it would be virtually impossible to monitor or handle them all individually without enormous expense. Said Harvey:

“We are constantly talking with our users, advocacy groups, and government officials to see how we can improve Twitter, and will continue to do so… we hope the public understands the balances we’re trying to strike as we continue to work to make our systems and processes better.”

A platform or a publisher?

twitter bird tweets logo drawing

From a legal standpoint, as The Guardian notes in a piece about Twitter’s challenges, the company is protected — in the U.S. and Britain at least, as well as some other jurisdictions — from facing criminal responsibility for the tweets that it carries, in the same way that phone companies aren’t held liable for conversations that involve criminal activity, and instant-messaging platforms are also protected. The idea is that Twitter is just a pipe or platform for others to publish, and they bear the ultimate responsibility for the content and any repercussions.

Twitter has also made a point over the years of reinforcing two central points about the service: the first is that “you own your tweets” — meaning you control them and by extension are responsible for them — and the second is that the company values the principle of free speech extremely highly, which its legal counsel Alex Macgillivray and others have described as being “the free-speech wing of the free-speech party.”

This is all well and good in the U.S., which has a strong history of supporting free speech and freedom of the press, but Twitter’s job in navigating the stormy waters of free expression gets a lot harder in other countries — where protection for free speech may not be as extensive. France managed to get Twitter to hand over personal details about users who posted offensive comments about gays and Jews, and Germany convinced Twitter to block new-Nazi tweets.

Free speech vs. government control

London Underground sign and Big Ben clock at Houses of Parliament

Britain may have a fiercely independent press, but it also has much stronger protections around harmful speech such as libel and slander — and both the British police and some legislators there seem less than inclined to let Twitter off the hook for incidents like the one Criado-Perez was caught up in simply because the company believes in free speech and the right of users to control their own tweets.

British MPs have said they plan to ask Twitter some questions about its system for dealing with abuse at a committee hearing in the fall — and it has already broached the idea of somehow regulating the service, in the wake of the riots in London in 2011. Andy Trotter, a chief constable who is in charge of social media for the British police service, said he doesn’t believe the company should be able to claim some kind of immunity for publishing abusive content, and that it is Twitter’s job to take action in such cases:

“We want social media companies to take steps to stop this happening. It’s on their platforms this is occurring. They must accept responsibilty for what’s happening on their platforms. They can’t just set it up and walk away.”

In that sense, what the company has been experiencing in Britain raises an even larger question, one that also came up recently in Turkey: Can Twitter maintain its commitment to free speech and the right of users to control their own tweets while expanding further into countries that are less committed to those kinds of principles — if they even uphold them at all? And how long can it maintain the position that it is just a platform, not a publisher?

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock / Fuzzbones and Shutterstock / Luciano Mortula

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