After hanging his free speech credentials on his merciful inaction against an account that tweeted the live location of his private jet - which he had tried to get removed in the past - Elon Musk has now reversed course and banned the @ElonJet account, while also overseeing an update in Twitter’s platform policies that will outlaw live location tracking entirely.
Which could be problematic, in various ways.
First, on the rule change - following an incident involving his young son, Elon Musk decided that enough was enough, and called on his team to implement new rules around location tracking.
As explained by Twitter:
“When someone shares an individual’s live location on Twitter, there is an increased risk of physical harm. Moving forward, we’ll remove Tweets that share this information, and accounts dedicated to sharing someone else’s live location will be suspended.”
The actual wording in Twitter’s rules specifically outlaws:
“Live location information, including information shared on Twitter directly or links to 3rd-party URL(s) of travel routes, actual physical location, or other identifying information that would reveal a person’s location, regardless if this information is publicly available.”
According to Musk, a stalker had used location tracking data to follow his car, which resulted in the man stopping the car and jumping onto the hood, while his young son was inside.
Musk himself was not in the car, but the incident was enough to highlight the dangers of location tracking to Elon, who decided to take immediate action against the @ElonJet account specifically.
Though whether that actual account played any part in the incident is questionable, as flight data logs are publicly available from various sources, and that tracking data obviously doesn’t extend to car tracking or anything else.
Still, Elon’s making a move - but changing the platform’s rules wholesale could have expanded impacts that Twitter 2.0 may not have thought through with this quick update.
For example, based on this wording, a government could theoretically call on Twitter to ban all tweets that include, say, footage from a protest action, as that would be sharing the live location of the people noted in any attached video or image.
That’s part of what Twitter actually did last year, under request from the Indian government, amid violent protests over agricultural reforms.
As reported by Time:
“Farmers used tractors to tear down police barricades, and videos of police attacking protesting farmers circulated on social media.”
Footage of the protests, which was subsequently distributed via social apps, threatened to undermine the government’s authority, which led the Indian Government to call on Twitter to remove all mentions of the protest action, and suspend accounts sharing it.
Which Twitter did, before reversing that decision days later.
As Twitter noted:
“We will continue to advocate for the right of free expression on behalf of the people we serve. We are exploring options under Indian law — both for Twitter and for the accounts that have been impacted. We remain committed to safeguarding the health of the conversation occurring on Twitter, and strongly believe that the Tweets should flow."
The incident sparked ongoing tensions between the company and the Indian Government, with Twitter maintaining that it was illegal for the Government to restrict the rights of citizens to document the protest action.
But now, Twitter may have inadvertently provided a new pathway for legitimate censorship of such, whenever any government chooses to shut it down.
Because effectively, under this new clause, any live or real-time update that includes anyone else, other than the account holder, is actually against the rules, and should be removed. That’s not what the intent of the rule is, but without specifics factored into the wording, it could apply to a lot of different use cases, and could absolutely facilitate censorship, in many ways.
Twitter has said that content that shares location information related to a public engagement or event, such as a concert or political event, is still permitted, while it will also factor in intent, including whether the information has been shared during a crisis situation. But it’s not clear how that might relate to protests and unofficial gatherings, which could provide a new opportunity for censorship.
In essence, Twitter’s new team has rushed through an update that could have far-reaching implications, seemingly at the whim of its new, billionaire owner, who continues to shape the platform based on his own personal experience.
There’s also no small irony in this announcement coming just a day after reports that Twitter has also been considering a new push to force users to share their location information to assist with ad targeting in the app.
Increasingly, it seems that Twitter’s ‘free speech’ approach will come with certain conditions, with those specific parameters being dictated by its high-profile chief.
Will that be workable? Can Twitter actually function in an even-handed, more open way while Elon is also bringing his own bias and experience into the mix?
It seems like there’s still some work to be done to establish optimal process at Twitter HQ.