On Its 7th Birthday, Is Twitter Still The 'Free Speech Party'? : All Tech Considered The first tweet was posted seven years ago. Since then, the social media site has been used as a free speech platform to spread information, report on the Arab Spring and stay connected with millions worldwide. But critics say that as Twitter has grown, it has sometimes compromised its principles.
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On Its 7th Birthday, Is Twitter Still The 'Free Speech Party'?

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On Its 7th Birthday, Is Twitter Still The 'Free Speech Party'?

On Its 7th Birthday, Is Twitter Still The 'Free Speech Party'?

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/174858681/174910410" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Seven years ago today, Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey sent out the first Tweet. He wrote: Just setting up my Twttr, which was then spelled T-W-T-T-R. Apparently Dorsey sensed from the start that sometimes vowels would disappear in the super-short messages on his service. These days, Twitter has its I and E back, though many tweets do not. And the tiny messages are huge, used by everyone from Occupy Wall Street activists to celebrities hungry for publicity.

NPR's Laura Sydell reports on how Twitter's relationship to free speech has changed over the years.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: A year after Twitter was founded, I visited its then-tiny offices and spoke with Twitter co-founder Biz Stone. He told me about his first tweet.

BIZ STONE: I was at home ripping up old carpets, sweating. It was terrible. It was gross. And my phone sort of buzzed in my pocket and I picked it up and I saw Evan Williams is wine tasting in Napa.

SYDELL: At the time, many people thought this kind of communication was about all Twitter was good for.

JAMES PONTIN: Twitter was in the business of allowing people to advertise trivialities.

SYDELL: That's Jason Pontin, the editor-in-chief of the MIT Technology Review, thinking back on his initial impressions of the service. Today, Pontin thinks of Twitter differently and so do its executives.

DICK COSTOLO: We think of twitter as the global town square.

SYDELL: Dick Costolo is the CEO of Twitter.

COSTOLO: When you walk into it, there are many things you can do. You can go listen to the musician. You can pick up the news. You can purchase things.

SYDELL: And today Twitter says it has well over 200 million active users around the globe. CEO Costolo says this hasn't changed what Twitter sees as its essential mission in the world.

COSTOLO: We're the free speech wing of the free speech party.

SYDELL: Costolo can point to a lot to back up that statement, from the regular flow of Tweets from Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei to its role in the Arab Spring two years ago.


SYDELL: As protesters faced down Egyptian police, they used Twitter to let the world know what was happening.

NPR's Andy Carvin was a pioneer in using Twitter for reporting during the protests.

ANDY CARVIN, BYLINE: If you're in a place like Tahrir Square and bullets are flying around you and you need to quickly get the message out, well, then shooting out a quick text message is certainly one way of doing that. It made it easy for a critical mass of people to access it when breaking news was happening somewhere.

SYDELL: In the midst of the protests, Twitter was scheduled to power down for site maintenance. But the company got a call from the State Department, asking it to wait because of its crucial role in communication for the democracy movement.

Ironically, Twitter's biggest battles against censorship began in Western democracies. Unlike the U.S., many European countries have laws against hate speech. Last year in France there was a torrent of anti-Semitic tweets. Elie Petit is the vice president of the European Union of Jewish Students.

ELIE PETIT: It was written: A good Jew is a dead; a good Jew is a burnt Jew; a good Jew doesn't exist. Things like this.

SYDELL: Petit was speaking from a cafe in Paris. There had been a lot of violence against Jews in France. So Petit's organization went to Twitter and asked that the company follow French law and take down the tweets.

PETIT: They didn't react so we decided to sue them.

SYDELL: The French court ordered Twitter to block the anti-Semitic tweets and they complied, says CEO Costolo.

COSTOLO: We have to abide by the laws in the countries in which we operate. So the capability we built allows us to block those tweets from being seen in the countries in which they're against the law, while remaining visible to those outside that country.

SYDELL: Costolo says even though people won't see the tweets in France, Twitter's software will let them know the accounts were being censored. But the French court also asked Twitter to turn over the names of the people who sent out the hate tweets. Twitter refused.

Jason Pontin of the MIT Technology Review says Twitter's compromise is full of contradictions.

PONTIN: To their credit, they're not giving up names and that's great. But they're no longer compliant with their own little internal rule, which is that they will be locally compliant with law. So they've said we'll be compliant with this part of the law.

SYDELL: Twitter also drew fire last year during the Olympics. The company had a commercial partnership with NBC. Journalist Guy Adams was a vocal critic of NBC. He tweeted the email address of an NBC executive where his followers could send complaints. A Twitter employee alerted NBC and said it could have his account taken down. And NBC did just that.

Twitter CEO Costolo says it's a mistake they won't make again.

PONTIN: And I had a long conversation with that person about the way we think about our users here, and that it's not our job to be the editor of what's right and what's wrong and what's good and what's bad on Twitter. That's for our users to police and report and decide.

SYDELL: Despite the apology, the situation laid bare the problems that Twitter confronts as it balances being a profitable international business and an open media platform. Its aim is to be the place where comedians Steve Martin and Albert Brooks can have a spontaneous conversation, you can tweet about a bad cup of coffee, and Chinese dissidents can take on the Chinese government. Costolo says he is aware of the challenges.

COSTOLO: Creating a platform where people feel safe and free to walk into the town square and have the conversations they want to have, will ultimately benefit the business more in the long run.

SYDELL: So far, Twitter's export of American free speech values is turning about to be a profitable formula. The question going forward is whether Twitter can stay true to its mission of being a beacon of free speech while remaining a commercial success.

Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco.

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