Yesterday, Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey announced on the platform that he would be returning to the company as full-time CEO, a position from which he had been ousted back in 2008. In a series of tweets, Dorsey briefly outlined his strategy for the growing company, focusing on Twitter’s strengths and his desire to ensure the platform is “easy to understand” for its many global users. But one tweet in the series stood out to us:
We’re excited to see Twitter’s top job go to someone willing to make such strong statements about the company’s commitment to freedom of expression, but Twitter is a very different company than it was in 2008, or even in 2012, when UK manager Tony Wang called the company “the free speech wing of the free speech party.” The Twitter that was at the cutting edge of protecting user rights by being an early adopter of transparency reports, submitting takedown requests to Chilling Effects, and fighting secret US government subpoenas for user data has been gone for years. If Jack Dorsey is looking to bring that Twitter back, here are some steps we think he should take:
Stop complying with censorship requests from authoritarian governments. In 2014, we called Twitter out for responding to legal requests for content removal from Russia and Pakistan. While they rightly corrected course on Pakistan, where they took down content in response to a request that turned out to invalid, the fact remains that Twitter has removed content at the behest of countries when not legally required to do so.
Stop putting the “rights” of politicians before the right to free speech. This summer, Twitter shut down Politwoops, an accountability project that captured deleted tweets from politicians. Twitter defended their decision by stating that the deletion of a tweet is an “expression of the user’s voice.” While we would agree, politicians are no ordinary users; they’re public figures whose statements have an impact on how our societies are governed (a deleted tweet just days later from Donald Trump demonstrated why the project is so important).
Don’t open offices in authoritarian countries. Back in August, Twitter was roundly criticized for opening an office in the United Arab Emirates, a country that regularly jails and deports both citizens and non-citizens alike for exercising their right to free expression on social media. At the time, we spoke with Twitter about their newly-opened office in the United Arab Emirates. The company claimed they had spoken first with human rights groups based in the country, an impossibility because no such groups exist. Although Twitter claims that they don’t make special arrangements with governments regarding censorship, their presence in the country legally obligates them to remove content when requested and puts their employees at risk if they refuse.
Deploy end-to-end encrypted direct messages. Most content on Twitter is public, but Twitter stores the direct messages between users, which is an enormous cache of personal communications. We know that governments ask Twitter for this potentially-sensitive data. Twitter could do a lot to protect the rights of their users by giving them the option to encrypt these communications.
Adopt anti-harassment measures that empower users. While Twitter is an incredible communications platform, it’s also frequently a tool of harassment. While we don’t trust companies to regulate speech, we strongly support giving users the tools to control what they see.
Some of these changes may take considerable time and effort to implement, but others are easy to make—especially the ones that simply involve not complying with censorship requests. Jack Dorsey could signal his commitment to free speech quickly and decisively with just a few policy changes. We will watch his first few weeks on the job with great interest and we hope to see Twitter return to its place on the cutting edge of protecting free speech rights all over the world.