(Corrects spelling of Sao Paulo in 1st and 18th paragraphs)
By Gerry Shih
SAN FRANCISCO Oct 8 When a Brazilian state
prosecutor last year set out to silence anonymous Twitter
messages that were revealing the location of drunk-driving
checkpoints, he served the social media company's just-opened
Sao Paulo office with a lawsuit.
Sharing sightings of police checkpoints does not violate any
rules set by Twitter Inc, which has far fewer restrictions on
content than social media rivals such as Facebook Inc.
Nor would such Tweets be a crime in the United States. Twitter
has traditionally resisted efforts to obtain the identity of
users whose words might be regarded as a crime.
But in Brazil, Twitter quickly handed over the Internet
protocol addresses of three accounts as a demonstration of its
"good faith, respect and will to cooperate with the Brazilian
judicial power," the company's lawyers said in a legal filing
Even that wasn't enough: the lawsuit, which demands that the
company bar any such accounts in the future, is ongoing.
The situation in Brazil is a microcosm of the public policy
and business challenges facing Twitter as it seeks to translate
global popularity into profits.
Since its inception, the 140-character messaging service's
simplicity and mobile-friendly nature - it can be used by any
cellphone with a text-messaging function - has helped speed its
global adoption as a source of real-time information. Unlike
many social media services, it can be used anonymously.
The company's laissez-faire approach to monitoring content,
together with an aggressive posture in challenging government
censorship requests and demands for customer information, have
made it the darling of civil liberties advocates and political
protesters from New York's Zuccotti Park to Cairo's Tahrir
But now, as it prepares to become a public company with a
valuation expected to exceed $10 billion, Twitter must figure
out how to make money outside the U.S. International customers
make up more than 75 percent of Twitter users, but only 25
percent of sales come from overseas.
That means opening offices and employing people on the
ground: there are now seven overseas offices and counting. And
that, in turn, means complying with local laws - even when they
conflict with the company's oft-stated positioning as "the
free-speech wing of the free-speech party."
These conflicts, paradoxically, arise not so much in
countries with repressive governments - the service is banned
outright in China, for instance - but rather in countries with
Western-style democracies, including Brazil, Germany, France,
Britain and India.
"There are a bunch of countries that you can't treat like
China because they have democratic systems and they abide by the
rule of law, but they have speech restrictions that we would
find objectionable," said Andrew McLaughlin, a former director
of global public policy at Google Inc and White House
technology official who is now chief executive of news website
Digg. "Those are the issues where the rubber hits the road on
In Twitter's initial public offering prospectus, which was
made public last week, there was only an oblique mention of
protecting speech. The company said its corporate mission was to
facilitate the dissemination of "ideas and information instantly
without barriers," and that "our business and revenue will
always follow that mission in ways that improve - and do not
detract from - a free and global conversation."
Alex Macgillivray, the former general counsel who coined the
company's free speech slogan and was widely regarded as a
staunch civil libertarian, left the company in September.
Twitter declined to comment about potential conflicts
between its business goals and its free-speech advocacy in
general, or any specific cases.
There's certainly no shortage of political chatter on
Twitter, and world leaders ranging from Iranian President Hassan
Rouhani to Pope Francis have taken to the service as a means of
communicating directly with constituents.
Activists say they haven't seen Twitter backing away from
its free-speech policies yet - but they're wary.
"Twitter has always been an ally," said Hisham Almiraat, a
Moroccan blogger who manages the anti-censorship website Global
Voices Advocacy. "As soon as Twitter becomes public, it needs to
be accountable to its shareholders, and its strategy becomes
more short-term. If Twitter, for reasons of greed, or because
they are politically compelled, decides to change that core
philosophy, then I'll worry."
OPPORTUNITY IN BRAZIL
A booming, social media-loving country of more than 80
million Internet users, Brazil perennially ranks among Twitter's
most active markets. When the company set up operations in Sao
Paulo in late 2012, the company's top sales executive, Adam
Bain, described the opportunity in the country as "amazing from
a business perspective."
As in many Latin American nations, the service is used by
everyone from the president on down. And with Twitter proving to
be a powerful companion medium for sports and other forms of
televised entertainment, Brazil's role as host of the 2014 World
Cup and 2016 Olympic Games make it an especially attractive
Yet the broad adoption of Twitter has not been accompanied
by broad tolerance of the free-wheeling conversations that
characterize social media in general and Twitter in particular.
Brazilian government bodies regularly file more requests for
user information or content removal than any country other than
the U.S., according to transparency reports published
periodically by companies including Twitter and Google.
Luis Fernando Canedo, the prosecutor in Brazil, described
his case over the driving checkpoints as a landmark for the
country - and also for Twitter, which had never before been sued
by a government.
"Social networks are a relatively new reality and so is
their impact," Canedo told Reuters. "There are future situations
today we can't even imagine and in which the State will have to
position itself in front of certain illegal, harmful practices
being carried out over the Internet."
His case has not exactly gone smoothly. Even after obtaining
Internet addresses from Twitter, the prosecutors misidentified
the suspects behind the driving checkpoint Tweets.
They then dropped the case against the individuals, but
still want Twitter to bar any such accounts in the future.
HATE SPEECH IN EUROPE
Twitter has long tried to hew to the position that users -
not the company - are responsible for the content on the
service. But last year it implemented a means of filtering
Tweets by country, so that if it were forced to censor messages
in one place it would still be able to show them in others.
That capability was used for the first time last October,
when Twitter yielded to a request from German police to filter a
neo-Nazi group's Twitter account so that users in Germany could
not see it.
Earlier this year, just as Twitter's head of international
strategy, Katie Jacobs Stanton, relocated to France to open
Twitter's Paris office, Twitter's lawyers were fighting an order
by a French court to reveal the email and IP addresses of users
who had sent a spate of anti-Semitic tweets, which are
prohibited under the country's hate-speech laws.
When Twitter exhausted its appeals in July, the company
turned over the information.
In Britain, meanwhile, parliament in April passed a new
defamation law that shifted liability to website operators for
its users' posted content, which some observers said could
hasten the end of online anonymity.
Like most global companies, Twitter has always acknowledged
that it must obey the laws of the countries in which it
operates. At the same time, though, it had little physical
presence internationally and thus could take a hands-off
Now, as Twitter grows its sales operation, absence is not a
"If you make the choice to operate in a country, you're
subject to local laws," said Roy Gilbert, a former Google
executive who set up the search giant's operations in India in
Twitter, moreover, may need local offices even more than
some other Internet companies because its ad strategy depends on
wooing large brand advertisers that need to be serviced by a
direct sales presence, noted Clark Fredericksen, an analyst at
While Google can make money by allowing small businesses in
a country to use its self-serve advertising platform, Twitter's
self-serve ad product remains in its infancy and is only
available in the U.S.
In countries such as Egypt and Turkey, Twitter has sought to
avoid falling under local jurisdiction by selling ads through
contractors, although it remains unclear whether the strategy
will be tenable in the long run.
Amid massive anti-government protests fueled by organizers
on Twitter this summer, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan
threatened to shut down the service, which he called a
His government called on Twitter to set up an office in the
country so it would fall under Turkish law. Twitter rebuffed the
request and weeks later posted a job for an executive in Dublin
to manage ad resellers within Turkey.
Ozgur Uckan, a communication professor at Istanbul Bilgi
University, said authorities may still be able to pressure the
company by targeting its local partners. "The authorities may
try to force Twitter to comply, using their regulation tools
like tax issues," Uckan said.
In recent months, the ruling party backed away from its
efforts to muzzle the service. Instead, it is adopting a tactic
that has raised yet more questions about Twitter's future in the
The ruling AK Party recruited thousands of volunteers and
paid workers to join Twitter, two party sources told Reuters.
The pro-government volunteers have employed tactics such as
reporting their political rivals as spammers, leading to their
"We decided to fight against them with their own tool and
now we are more active on Twitter," said one party member, who
asked not to be named.
The tactics proved so successful that Twitter chief
executive Dick Costolo was pressed to make a statement in July
denying that the company was cooperating with the Turkish
government to suspend opposition accounts.
"You can't imagine the Internet without Twitter or Google.
They are now considered the air you breathe," said Almiraat, the
Moroccan blogger. "Now they're in a position of power, and they
should be very careful with that power."
(Reporting by Gerry Shih in SAN FRANCISCO, Esteban Israel in
SAO PAOLO, Matthew Smith in DUBAI, Parisa Hafezi in ANKARA,
Andjarsari Paramaditha in JAKARTA; Editing by Jonathan Weber)