How Twitter Referees the Voices of Hundreds of Millions

From copyrighted and trademarked content to illegal speech and symbolism in countries all over the world, Twitter’s legal team has its hands full on a daily basis, making sure users don’t overstep their boundaries

Regulating the flow of information on the internet is a challenging task in itself, but trying to regulate it on a daily basis on the social media network Twitter—which, as of the second quarter of 2018, had more than 335 million users—is a never-ending task for the company’s legal team.

That’s because even on a platform where one can sound off with their own thoughts, opinions, and even general non sequitur (covfefe, anyone?), there’s still plenty of trademarked and copyrighted content being shared without authorization, not to mention a myriad of laws to navigate in countries throughout the world where particular content is simply illegal to share (e.g., sharing Nazi symbols is illegal in Germany).

On a platform where even users who are suspended for violating the network’s terms of service can use a different email address to open another account, the battle that the company’s legal team fights is ongoing. Michele Lee, director, associate general counsel, and head of litigation and competition, and the rest of the team must therefore remain ever vigilant. From July to December 2017, the network noted that reports of alleged trademark policy violations dropped 18 percent from the previous six-month reporting period. However, in that same period, reports of alleged copyright infringement, including the total number of Digital Millennium Copyright Act takedown notices, increased 38 percent over the previous six-month reporting period.

When it comes to the aforementioned country-by-country removal requests, the challenges only get stickier. On its website, Twitter notes that governments (and their law-
enforcement agencies), organizations chartered to combat discrimination, and lawyers representing individuals are among the complainants that submit legal requests. Twitter may, for example, receive a court order requiring removal of defamatory statements in one country, or law enforcement might ask the company to remove prohibited content in another.

In December 2017, the social networking site updated in-product messaging about withheld content in an attempt to better explain why certain content is withheld. That led to better differentiation between legal demands and reports based on local laws.

“The more that we can share about our actions, the better the public can understand the various challenges—legal or otherwise—that we face and how we handle them,” said Jeremy Kessel, Twitter’s global policy director, in a statement. “We are pleased to be able to share this step, but there is more to be done.”

Outside counsel partners such as Simpson Thacher are pleased to be working with Lee and Twitter on such matters. “As outside counsel, we have had the pleasure of working closely with Michele Lee,” says Jon Youngwood, cochair of the litigation department. “She is very talented, deeply committed, and an excellent leader,” adds partner Jim Kreissman.

Twitter has shared its transparency reports since 2012, but despite making that information public, the platform has come under more scrutiny over how it handles controversial content—due in no small part to public outcry over white-supremacist accounts and even tweets from President Donald Trump’s account, which some have argued violate the company’s usage terms related to hate speech and the possibility of inciting violence.

Nevertheless, the legal arguments and challenges made in the United States are just a piece of the puzzle that Twitter’s legal team has to manage. Both France and Germany submit high numbers of legal demands (based on reporting content that can be considered illegal hate speech under local European law), and according to Twitter, nearly 85 percent of the total global volume of legal demands has so far come from Russia and Turkey.

During the July to December 2017 reporting period, seventy-nine accounts of verified journalists and news outlets were the subject of legal demands (fifty-
eight of them in Turkey), although Twitter ultimately only withheld one account due to violations of Turkey’s anti-terror law. In several cases, Twitter filed legal objections to court orders involving Turkish news media, though none of its objections succeeded.

According to Kessel, as Twitter continues to evolve, it is working on improving its use of in-app notifications to alert affected users when it receives legal requests about their accounts. As technology evolves exponentially, on a daily basis, Twitter’s efforts to increase transparency will have to continue evolving with it.


Expertise Spotlight:

Simpson Thacher’s Global Litigation Department represents a wide range of sophisticated clients, including corporations, financial institutions, boards, audit and special committees, and senior executives, in their most significant matters. The Firm offers a substantial bench of talent to effectively handle litigations, government and internal investigations, arbitrations and cross-border disputes in North and South America, Asia and Europe.


WilmerHale:

“Michele is a world-class inside counsel. She has an extraordinary grasp of the rapidly changing issues facing tech companies. Her judgment is superb. She brings out the very best from both her team and outside counsel.“

-Patrick Carome, Partner