For Twitter, free speech matters — not real names

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