Twitter is a speech-loving tech company: the @Amac interview

People keep writing about Twitter — and for good reason. In its short life, the micro-blogging platform’s torrent of speech has fueled revolutions, goosed journalism and changed the way we watch news and sports.

Like Google (s goog) and Facebook (s fb) before it, Twitter is disrupting how we communicate and interact. The difference is that, unlike the other companies, Twitter’s identity and ambitions are hard to discern. Is it a passive platform for users? Or a full-blown media company?

A Freedom Fighter

To get a better idea of what makes Twitter tick, I sat down last month with its head lawyer, Alex Macgillivray, in the company’s newly-finished San Francisco office.

Twitter’s new digs are on a still-seedy stretch of Market street that carries an aura of the bad old days when tech money had yet to flood into the surrounding SoMa neighborhood. Inside Twitter, of course, the feeling is different. The office has lots of wood, posh fixtures and big windows that pour in lots of light.

Macgillivray, the former Googler who everyone calls Amac, has grey flecks in his hair but still looks like a preppy law student. Since he joined Twitter in 2009, the young company has clashed with the federal government over Wikileaks and with New York prosecutors over access to the account of an Occupy Wall Street protestor. On the day I met Macgillivray, Twitter was in the news again for pushing back against NYPD security demands.

One obvious question for Macgillivray is why does Twitter keep taking up legal fights that it could simply duck in the first place?  After all, its compatriots in the tech sector routinely shovel customer data to authorities at the drop of a hat.

“One of our core values is ‘defend and respect the users voice’ and we think about that in the context of our business and our product,” says Macgillivray. He explains that helping people express themselves is a central part of working at Twitter.

“No one wants a pen that has an opinion about what you write. Everyone wants a pen that will write what you tell it to write”

Just Another Technology Company?

Twitter’s advocacy for privacy and free speech makes it an outlier among technology companies. But its campaigns do have much in common with famous media brands — from the New York Times to Fox News — that regularly defend free expression.

My colleague Mathew Ingram has argued persuasively that Twitter is in fact a media company itself. To makes his case, Ingram points to Twitter’s introduction of content-rich “expanded tweets” and its partnerships with NASCAR and other corporate advertisers. Macgillivray, however, disagrees with the media thesis.

“I haven’t actually seen anything that would back up that stuff. I haven’t heard of anyone stopping delivery of the New York Times because they’re avid Twitter users.”

Macgillivray, who is married to a reporter, does acknowledge that journalism and Twitter share a similar goal of uniting users with the issues that are most meaningful to them. But he maintains that outsiders’ speculation about Twitter’s emergence as a media power doesn’t resonate within the company.

“It’s such a weird question. We don’t think about it all. I always think of us as a technology company because that’s what the vast majority of people here do.” Macgillivray added, though, that Twitter’s CEO might hold a broader view.

“Dick [Costolo] has a more nuanced and interesting way of thinking about it.”

Whatever the future might hold, Macgillivray says that for now Twitter has no plans to hire writers or to follow Google’s lead in acquiring content. He adds that, unlike potential competitors, Twitter is still plenty satisfied to explore all the possibilities of 140 characters (the maximum length of a tweet).

“It’s an interesting mistake a lot of copycats make when they copy Twitter. They’re like ‘right, we’re going to have something exactly like Twitter but the first thing we’ll do is get rid of that pesky 140 character limit’.”

Overall, Macgillivray portrays Twitter as a company that simply wants to tinker with tech while making a great user experience. That’s all very well. But Twitter, ready or not, is facing mounting scrutiny from outsiders who don’t buy the line that it’s just another tech company.

Defining the Soul of Twitter

There comes a time when internet companies outgrow their plucky start-up schtick: Google’s “Don’t Be Evil” sheen wore off years ago while The Social Network stripped whatever aura of innocence still floated about Facebook.

Twitter’s own baptism as a behemoth came this summer. In August, it announced that it would rip out the feeding tube of tweets it offers to other companies unless they abide by diktats that state how Twitter material can be displayed. This means that some websites who rely on Twitter’s raw material could be left high and dry.

Twitter’s behavior has rattled some in the tech community who have called it a bully and a traitor to the communal ethos of the internet. (A pragmatist might respond that Twitter has to tighten control of its product if it wants to woo major advertisers.)

Twitter’s policy changes have caused a flap. But that uproar pales in comparison to the end-of-innocence moment that Twitter experienced weeks earlier.

The moment occurred during the London Olympics when Twitter snuffed the account of a British journalist who had issued a series of tweets critical of its partner, NBC.

The optics were horrendous. The world’s media outlets blasted Twitter for appearing to have taken reprisal against a journalist on behalf of a powerful corporation. Twitter didn’t help its case by staying silent for nearly 24 hours.

When Twitter finally did respond to the PR crisis, it was through a blog post by Macgillivray. The post offered a frank apology and explained that someone within Twitter had alerted NBC that the journalist had published the email address of one of its executives — a violation of Twitter’s privacy policies. NBC, in turn, reported the alleged violation to Twitter’s Trust and Safety team.  The team — never aware that the complaint originated within Twitter — independently suspended the journalist’s account in accordance with internal protocol.

This explanation is logical and suggests that Twitter was not engaging in deliberate censorship — even if parts of the explanation are unsatisfying (why did Twitter not just suspend the offending tweet rather than the entire account? Why did it treat an obviously corporate email address as private?).

For Macgillivray, who chairs the Trust and Safety team, the episode is part of an ongoing learning curve.

“A lot has been made of that moment. We realized we made a mistake, we came clean about that mistake while fixing it and apologized to the person … I hope we’ll continue to behave that way — to realize our mistakes and to fix them.”

He added that the NBC incident was a mistake but that it also reflected the effectiveness of the church-state division between the trust and safety team and the rest of the company. Macgillivray remains proud of the team’s advocacy for users and says it’s an important reason that people come to work at Twitter.

The Ethics of Engineers

Twitter’s corporate ethics also serve as a strategic recruiting tool. While companies could once lure engineers with good pay and lavish cafeterias, Mcgillivray says, they must now offer something extra.

“We want to be the best place in world for engineers to work. What are things engineers want?” He points to two things Twitter can offer: power over patents and open source code.

In the case of patents, Twitter has crafted an “Innovators Agreement” that promises engineers that the company won’t use their work to spur the ruinous patent lawsuits that are engulfing the tech sector. Macgillivray explained the idea was a nod to the values of its engineers but also reflected Twitter’s own experience with patent trolls (shell companies that don’t make anything but use patents to squeeze companies that do.)

“We had seen some stuff as a company that we thought wasn’t great. You can look at the game theory about what to do when sued. We studied it with some pretty smart people and it seems the only thing you can do is defend it as vigorously as you can and beat the shit out of these players.”

As for open source code, Macgillivray says that it empowers engineers by letting them show off their work and to take it with them from company to company.

Amac’s Newsstand

Macgillivray is a lawyer by training but his reading list resembles that of a public intellectual. Right now, he’s immersed in a book by Daniel Kahneman, a behavioral psychologist whose work explores biases inherent to human decision making. Macgillivray’s also been revisiting ideas by essayist, investor and Y-Combinator founder Paul Graham.

Online, his reading tastes include the New York Times, Ars Technica and “a bunch of blogs.” And, of course, Twitter.

So who are some people worth following? Macgillivray proposes the academic and “Why Women Can’t Have It All” author, Anne-Marie Slaughter, and the writer and activist Jillian York.

His Twitter stream also includes news from his native Canada and from prominent American conservatives like John Boehner and Michelle Malkin.

Macgillivray thinks the froth of voices in his Twitter stream refutes popular hand-wringing about a “filter bubble” in which people seek out media that reinforces their existing opinion.

“That takes a dim view of humanity,” he says. “We’ve always wanted to hear opinions that are not our own and that’s why we talk to other people. Twitter is a wonderful way to get opinions from people you might not otherwise bump into at a cocktail party.”