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Twitter's 'Freedom of Expression' Is a Privilege; Not a Right

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Reports of hatred, racism, and threats directed at public figures through Twitter continue to grow (If you're unfamiliar with this trend, then simply google "Twitter Haters," "Twitter Trolls," or "Twitter Threats" and read a few of the related articles). "Twitter Trolls" come to Twitter heavily armed with elaborate insults and threats hurling their thoughts at people or brand that have angered or annoyed them in some way. Most recently, Los Angeles Lakers guard Steve Blake and his wife became the victims of a Twitter attack just moments after Blake missed a potential game-winning 3-point shot in Game 2 of the Conference Semifinals. Fans took to Twitter in anger and tweeted obscenities and death threats at Steve Blake and his wife's respective Twitter accounts. Feelings of anger and frustration are understandable when a team loses a close game. Yet, when those feelings are channeled into tantrums of hateful and threatening tweets directed at others and their families they become despicable, and in some cases illegal.

An online UK news website, The Daily Mail, recently ran an article that reported on several celebrities and public figures who have deleted their Twitter accounts due to the overwhelming amount of hateful tweets they had received. The article calls "Twitter Trolls" poisonous and urges Twitter to take action against trolling users. For reference, Twitter does not take an active role in monitoring or censoring content produced by its users. However, Twitter may remove or censor (in select countries) reported content or accounts that break national laws or violate Twitter's rules of spam and abuse.

Should Twitter take additional action to sustain an environment where public figures and brands feel more comfortable interacting with fans? Or, should Twitter continue to rely on its users and third parties to report content or accounts that violate the laws and rules?

To begin tackling these questions, it's important to understand that Twitter is a for-profit privately owned company. Twitter's executives and board of directors are the sole decision-makers of that business and products owned. Yet, Twitter has granted its users the unique privilege to say and post whatever they want without a built-in filter censoring content. For example: users can curse at will, post pornographic or obscene material (except as the user's profile picture or background), make fun of public figures or brands through parody accounts, and post links to any linkable content. Although I, along with many other users, do not post obscene material or curse much on Twitter, I appreciate that Twitter has granted me the freedom to decide.

Some argue, "Freedom of expression is our right; of course Twitter will set its guidelines as they do." Sure, when functioning in general population in many countries its citizens enjoy certain rights granted to them by their nation. While the U.N.'s Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that all human beings have the right to freedom of opinion and expression "regardless of frontier," this declaration's enforcement and application to the Internet is still widely debated. Also, even U.S. self-enforced legal documents such as The Bill of Rights do not currently force the Internet to function without censor. If Twitter wanted to install a filter that bans the use of certain words or types of content tomorrow, it could legally do so. Currently, many websites enable a filter that pre-censors or fails to publish content that includes certain types of links, attachments or words. To me, Twitter is a great platform because it subscribes to the right of "free expression" and thus grants its users the privilege to enjoy that freedom. It's easy to see the social, economic, and political implications that Twitter's "free expression" has yielded, such as aiding the organization of the Occupy movement, spreading critical information during and after natural disasters, organizing groups of people against dictators, and generally delivering current news updates faster than other widely available communication sources. Yet, as Twitter continues to allow "free expression" on its platform, both the positive and negative consequences are becoming more evident.

Coming back to answer the questions I posed earlier, I offer a quote from Spider Man: "With great power there must also come...great responsibility!" The power and responsibility lie within both Twitter and its users.

Twitter's power is held within its number of users/partners as well as its worldwide acceptance as a form of communication. Its responsibility is a little more complex. On one side, Twitter's goals are most likely similar to any other for-profit private business in that it works towards business objectives such as increasing usership, traffic, and profits. On the other side, Twitter plans to maintain a culture of "free expression." As Twitter expands internationally, it has shown a willingness to bend some of its approaches to "free expression" in order to cooperate with other nations' laws. Twitter's track record of bending but not breaking indicates its willingness to expand by compromising with other countries so that these countries citizens may experience the benefits of the platform without breaking the law.

Keeping in mind Twitter's goal of expansion and maintaining a "free expression" user experience coupled with the fact that some celebrities and public figures are deciding to leave Twitter because of hateful, racist, or threatening attacks from "Twitter Trolls"; is it completely unreasonable to speculate that Twitter may enact measures to mitigate this problem? Additionally, tech entrepreneurs could potentially create more competition by building a better, safer environment for public figures and brands.

Given the great privilege to "freely express" ourselves on Twitter, I also believe we, as users, have a great responsibility. If we, as Twitter users, don't want to see our current privilege restricted then we have a responsibility to conduct ourselves with a more constructive and civil demeanor toward peers, public figures, and brands.

Do you think Twitter needs to make certain changes to address issues like Twitter trolling? Or, do you feel that any additional regulations to Twitter's "free expression" would harm the overall site experience?

This is certainly a complex issue and I'd love to further discuss it with you in the comments below!

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