Twitter Facing Free Speech Challenges in Global Markets

Twitter promotes itself as a protector of over 200 million people who publicly share their lives online. But increasingly, carefree tweets are conflicting with differing global laws and standards in new markets for the microblogger. The company’s hands-off approach is being tested as it enters markets in France, Germany, China and Brazil. As it is increasingly subject to local laws, Twitter is facing challenges regarding free speech and censorship.

“You have to abide by the rule of law in the countries in which you operate,” explains Dick Costolo, chief executive at Twitter. 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.”

Recently, Twitter was criticized for giving French prosecutors information on users who tweeted anti-Semitic messages. In the UK, the government denounced Twitter for failing to effectively deal with abusive tweets, after an activist was threatened on the social platform.

Twitter, like all Internet companies, must walk the fine line between protecting free expression and offering welcoming services. Freedom of speech is a problematic issue for Twitter; it advocates for free speech, but the company is criticized for not adhering to its own ideals.

In September, Twitter complied with prosecutors in providing Twitter messages and other personal information from Malcolm Harris, an Occupy Wall Street protestor that Twitter had initially supported in a highly publicized trial of disorderly conduct. The company would have faced a contempt-of-court citation and fine if it refused to comply.

“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,” reports The Wall Street Journal. “The company also gives a wide berth to tweets about unpopular points of view and to controversial groups like Anonymous.”

Twitter has stood its ground to government pressure, as the company fought the British authorities that blamed the company for being a tool for rioters in 2011. Twitter has also not complied with Chinese censorship.

The company acknowledges the pros and cons with allowing anonymous tweets, and attempts to enable freedom of speech. With freedom, there can be abuse, which Twitter is addressing with a recently launched report abuse option on its service.

“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.”