Twitter’s chief lawyer defends speech with revenue in mind
By SOMINI SENGUPTA
The New York Times | September 04,2012
SAN FRANCISCO — Alexander Macgillivray, Twitter’s chief lawyer, says that fighting for free speech is more than a good idea. He thinks it is a competitive advantage for his company.
That conviction explains why he spends so much of Twitter’s time and money going toe to toe with officers and apparatchiks both here and abroad. Last week, his legal team was fighting a court order to extract an Occupy Wall Street protester’s Twitter posts. The week before, the team wrestled with Indian government officials seeking to take down missives they considered inflammatory. Last year, Macgillivray challenged the Justice Department in its hunt for WikiLeaks supporters who used Twitter to communicate.
“We value the reputation we have for defending and respecting the user’s voice,” Macgillivray said in an interview here at Twitter headquarters. “We think it’s important to our company and the way users think about whether to use Twitter, as compared to other services.”
It doesn’t always work. And it sometimes collides awkwardly with another imperative Twitter faces: to turn its fire hose of public opinion into a profitable business. That imperative will become far more acute if the company goes public, and Twitter confronts pressures to make money fast and play nice with the governments of countries in which it operates; most Twitter users live outside the United States and the company is opening offices overseas.
That transformation makes his job all the more delicate. At a time when Internet companies control so much of what we can say and do online, can Twitter stand up for privacy, free expression and profitability all at the same time?
“They are going to have to monetize the data that they have and they can’t rock the boat maybe,” said Ryan Calo, a law professor at the University of Washington. “I don’t predict Twitter is going to lose its way, but it’s a moment to watch.”
Jonathan Zittrain, one of his former professors at Harvard Law School, called it both a challenge and opportunity for Macgillivray, widely known as @amac, his handle on Twitter, and one that could influence the Internet industry at large.
“If @amac can help find a path through it, it may serve as a model for corporate responsibility for an Internet where more and more code and content is governed by corporate gatekeepers,” Zittrain said via email. He added that the challenge for Macgillivray “is not only to pioneer a wise way through this thicket, but to implement it as Twitter’s use continues to explode. It’s complex maintenance on a jet engine while the plane is in flight.”
Twitter hit some turbulence this summer, when it seemed to forget its principles. The company briefly suspended a British journalist, Guy Adams, who had used his Twitter feed to repeatedly criticize the handling of Olympics coverage by NBC, a corporate partner of Twitter.
Silencing Adams led to public outrage (on Twitter, naturally). It fell on Macgillivray to explain, apologize and assuage. On the company blog, he confessed that a Twitter employee responsible for promoting corporate partnerships had been monitoring Adams’ account and advised NBC to file a complaint with the company. Twitter in turn suspended Adams’ account because it violated one of its own terms of service: Adams had disclosed an NBC executive’s email address on Twitter.
Macgillivray ordered the account to be restored and posted a public apology to Adams. It is “unacceptable,” he said, for Twitter to scrutinize tweets, though he declined to say whether the offending employee was punished. “We should not and cannot be in the business of proactively monitoring and flagging content, no matter who the user is,” he wrote.
The explicit mea culpa over the NBC criticism may also have protected Twitter from a lawsuit. Macgillivray is nothing if not a seasoned corporate lawyer.
This kerfuffle reveals something of the identity crisis that Twitter faces. It is both a gadfly’s bullhorn and a valuable stream of business intelligence. And with an $8 billion valuation, its business strategy is being closely watched. Twitter has lately stepped up ways to draw advertising revenue while Wall Street waits for it to go public.
Macgillivray insists that like a traditional media company that distributes information, Twitter, too, draws a hard line between the moneymaking side of the company and the content its users post. He calls it a church-state divide.
“You don’t want business interests affecting judgment about content,” he argued. “That is against corporate interests. It’s against the trust your users have in your service.”
Other technology and communications companies have repeatedly stumbled on issues of free speech and privacy. Yahoo supplied information that helped Chinese authorities in 2005 convict a journalist. Google in 2010 withdrew from China after hackers from that country stole proprietary computer code and hacked into Gmail accounts of human rights activists. Google and Twitter both issue annual reports that tally information requests from individual countries; Facebook, that other trove of personal data, does not, and insists on the use of real names, which, its critics say, can endanger dissidents and others with unpopular opinions.
A native of Toronto, Macgillivray, 40, has degrees from Princeton and Harvard. He worked at the prominent Silicon Valley law firm Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, and then at Google for six years, leading, among other things, a still-pending case over the scanning of out of-print books. He joined Twitter in September 2009.
Since then Twitter has deftly built something of a reputation for protecting free speech, even unpopular speech. It has staunchly backed the use of pseudonyms. It has allowed itself to be used by dissidents in the Arab world and the activist hackers who call themselves Anonymous. It has repeatedly faced pressure from governments in countries where it does business.
Its policy, announced this year as Twitter began to expand its international business, is to take down posts in specific countries, only on request, and only if they violate that country’s laws.
One flash point came last month when Indian officials said certain Twitter accounts were fomenting religious hatred. It asked Twitter to remove them. Twitter removed about half a dozen accounts that were found to be violating Twitter’s own rule, chiefly accounts impersonating the Indian prime minster.
This is a reality of the digital age. Sovereign nations have their laws. Internet companies have their rules.
It’s not just abroad that Twitter faces these crosscurrents. And certainly Twitter does not always win. Here in the U.S., the government prevailed in the WikiLeaks case. Twitter exhausted its appeals and was ordered by a court early this year to turn over the data that the Justice Department had sought on three WikiLeaks supporters, including the direct messages they had exchanged with one another on Twitter.
Twitter says it takes special efforts to protect its users’ privacy. The photos posted on Twitter, using Twitter’s own tools, do not contain additional information, like location, unless the user explicitly opts to include it. Location can be stripped with one click. A deleted account is purged forever after 30 days.
Twitter informs its users when law enforcement authorities seek their information, unless barred by a court from doing so.
This year, Twitter’s biggest fight is with a New York criminal court, which ordered the company to hand over all the Twitter posts of a Brooklyn man charged with disorderly conduct in connection with an Occupy protest. The judge, Matthew A. Sciarrino Jr., ordered the company to provide it. Twitter informed the Brooklyn man, Malcolm Harris, that the judge had ruled his words no longer belonged to him: Harris had turned them over to Twitter, in other words, to be spread across the world.
Macgillivray’s legal team appealed last Monday. Tweets belong to the user, the company argued.
“We want to be useful to as many people as we can be useful to,” he said. “We certainly do think about what is Twitter like for someone who has unpopular beliefs.”