Free Speech a Test for Twitter - begins blocking messages after govt demands...

TECHNOLOGY August 4, 2013, 7:57 p.m. ET

For Twitter, Free Speech Is a High-Wire Act

As Micro-Blogging Site Expands Globally, It Gets Flak From Many Sides


Twitter Inc.'s growing ambitions are making it harder to carry the Internet's free-speech banner.

Chief Executive Dick Costolo promotes Twitter as a protector of more than 200 million people who broadcast their lives, be it love for a new pop song or Tahrir Square protests. But increasingly, freewheeling tweets are clashing with divergent global laws and standards in markets where Twitter is spreading its wings.

"You have to abide by the rule of law in the countries in which you operate," the 49-year-old Mr. Costolo said in an interview at Twitter's San Francisco headquarters. Defending free expression "gets more challenging for us as a company as we become an ever-growing global company, and have a presence and offices and people on the ground around the world."

In recent weeks, Twitter has found itself labeled a censor, an enabler of hate speech and a tool of Big Brother. It drew flak in July for turning over to French prosecutors information about users who tweeted anti-Semitic messages. U.K. lawmakers in the last week have blasted Twitter for failing to deal effectively with abusive tweets, after an activist was threatened repeatedly by other Twitter users.

Twitter's hands-off approach to users' expression is being stressed as it opens offices in countries including France, Germany and Brazil ahead of its expected initial public stock offering—making workers and company assets subject to arrest or seizure if it breaks local laws.

All Internet companies have to walk a fine line between protecting free expression and creating hospitable services. Battles erupt over, for example, whether Google Inc.  should have done more to pull down a YouTube video considered insulting to Muslims, or whether Facebook Inc. goes too far in barring some photos of breast-feeding women.

Recent controversy over Internet companies' involvement in U.S. spying programs underscored how a handful of tech companies like Twitter are the last line of defense for massive caches of personal information.

Twitter's speech conundrum is particularly acute because the high bar it sets for itself exposes the company to criticism that it isn't living up to its ideals.

Just ask Malcolm Harris, an Occupy Wall Street protester whom Twitter initially backed in a high-profile disorderly-conduct trial. Twitter in September complied with prosecutors' demands for his Twitter messages and other account information. The company faced a contempt-of-court citation and fine if it didn't comply.

"Though it's clear their heart is with their users, it was disappointing not to see them go all the way to the mat," Mr. Harris said in an email. "I hope in the future they're more creative about how they protect user information."

To help counter abuse, Twitter several weeks ago started letting users click on a single button to initiate a report about tweets they believe are malicious.

Mr. Costolo, who has held up Twitter's long legal fight in the Harris case as an example of Twitter's defense of users, declined to comment, as did a Twitter spokesman.

Historically, digital-rights advocates say that Twitter has been more willing than most U.S. companies to fight government demands to reveal private Twitter information. The company also gives a wide berth to tweets about unpopular points of view and to controversial groups like Anonymous.

Sometimes that has meant picking fights in potentially lucrative markets. Mr. Costolo in 2011 defended Twitter from U.K. authorities, who blamed the service as a tool of rioters.

In a January interview, Mr. Costolo also said he wouldn't comply with Chinese censorship. "We are not going to make the kinds of sacrifices we might have to currently make for Twitter to be unblocked in China," he said.

"This really illustrates how difficult some of the growing pains can be when a company gets bigger and more established," said Marcia Hofmann, an attorney whose specialties include digital privacy. "You have more at stake."

Twitter says it blocked 73 tweets in the first half of the year based on government demands from Brazil, Russia and other countries—up from zero in the first half of 2012. If a post is deemed illegal in one country, Twitter continues to let users outside that country see the banned posts. The majority of Twitter's users are outside the U.S.

Mr. Costolo said he knows the benefits and costs of letting people post on Twitter anonymously—which Facebook doesn't permit. "Doing so enables political speech in countries where political speech isn't particularly welcome or worse," Mr. Costolo said. "We think that's really important."

The unavoidable downside, Mr. Costolo said, is that people sometimes tweet "horrible, disgusting revolting things."

To help counter abuse, Twitter several weeks ago started letting users click on a single button to initiate a report about tweets they believe are malicious. Some 40 employees review those claims.

At the end of July, Mr. Costolo was peppered with questions on Twitter about fears the company was shutting down accounts belonging to critics of Turkey's government.
Twitter says some people in Turkey are trying to silence rivals by reporting them as spammers.

Mr. Costolo said Twitter is trying to quash bogus spam reports that are politically motivated. Answering complaints, he wrote: "We understand the importance of this public, live, conversational platform across the world."

Write to Shira Ovide at

A version of this article appeared August 5, 2013, on page B1 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Free Speech a Test for Twitter.


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