Free Speech on Twitter
Twitter has become an Internet craze. Users rely on the site to publish brief messages which typically describe what that person is doing or other things that don't warrant a separate blog post or email.
The short version of the recent free speech scandal is as follows: Ariel Waldman, a social networking consultant claims that an anonymous woman has been harassing her via Twitter for the past few months. Specifically, Waldman claims that the person has been issuing profane tweets (Twitter messages) with her name in them. Thus, in theory, a search for Ariel Waldman's name would return one or more of these negative messages.
Waldman contacted Twitter to complain about the messages, and asked that the offending Twitter account be deleted. Waldman cited the Twitter terms of service, which state that users "must not abuse, harass, threaten, impersonate or intimidate other Twitter users."
Instead of enforcing these Terms of Service and silencing the speech of another Twitter user, the company announced that it would engage in a complete review of its policies and would revise the terms of service.
Like other interactive computer services which publish the content of others, Twitter can make use of section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA), which protects companies from being liable for the speech of others posted on their sites. The ACLU of Northern California has worked on many Section 230 cases including the recent California Supreme Court case, Barrett v. Rosenthal.
There are a few interesting take home lessons from the recent uproar at Twitter:
Companies should think hard about their terms of service and ensure that they include pro-free speech policies. If Twitter had more pro-free speech policies in the first place, it would never have been put into this situation. Companies should be exceedingly careful when crafting their terms of service. Many lawyers urge the 'kitchen sink' approach, throwing in lots of legalese 'just in case'. As this situation proves, there is a definite cost to adding terms you do not want to enforce.
A company does not need to be in the middle. If the statements cross the line into illegal content, victims can turn to the courts and sue. Internet companies are in the business of providing Internet services and connectivity. They do not need to arbitrate disputes — that is what the courts are for.
Users should realize that free speech for them means free speech for others too.
There are many Twitter users out there who embrace net neutrality or have urged Twitter to have a decentralized system to aid in the rapid flow of messages. Net neutrality and decentralization mean more opportunities for the fast flow of free speech without gatekeepers. But, when there is free speech, individuals might not always agree with what everyone else says.
Individuals who have called for the FCC to force Comcast to stop its filtering of peer-to-peer applications or ensure that companies like Verizon won't block NARAL Pro Choice's mobile text messages should also think hard about free speech before they call for Twitter to block users for writing particular messages.
Professor Jonathan Zittrain's new book, The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It, discusses a very similar type of tension. Some users seem to be willing to trade the flexibility and reliability of an open, decentralized network for "safety" and protection from harm. This is the same reason presented by Apple's iPhone -a locked down platform to protect against viruses and other threats.
The ACLU of Northern California has worked to ensure that the Internet remains a robust forum for free speech. Any calls for censorship should always be thoroughly examined. We applaud Twitter for revising its Terms of Service rather than silencing speech. For more information about the ACLU of Northern California's work on free speech and the internet, please visit here.