Twitter Bans Posting Photos of Private Individuals

Twitter Bans Posting Photos of Private Individuals

Twitter Bans Posting Photos of Private Individuals

On Nov. 29, 2021, Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey stepped down as CEO. Twitter’s Board of Directors unanimously chose former chief technology officer, Parag Agrawal, to succeed Dorsey. At 37-years old, Parag became the youngest CEO of a Fortune 500 company, and he wasted no time rolling out a dramatic change to Twitter’s privacy policy.

Immediately after Dorsey’s departure, Twitter announced the platform would no longer allow users to share images or videos of private individuals without that person’s consent. The new policy also prohibits users from sharing private individuals’ sensitive information such as an address or phone number. Twitter users will remain able to freely post photos and videos of public figures. 

Twitter clarified that the “policy will help curb the misuse of media to harass, intimate, and reveal the identities of private individuals, which disproportionately impacts women, activists, dissidents, and members of minority communities.”

The company published some exceptions to the general rule: sharing information that is publicly available elsewhere “in a non-abusive manner” does not violate the policy. Likewise, posts that “add value to the public discourse” or “contain eyewitness accounts… from developing events” are not prohibited. 

Many journalists have sharply criticized the new policy, arguing it is contrary to free speech principles, would impede legitimate journalism, and reserves too much discretion to Twitter’s moderators to determine what “adds value” to the public discourse.

Personally, I don’t use Twitter, but I recognize the profound impact the platform has had on the media landscape and our national discourse. As an advocate of individual privacy rights, I understand the benefits of a policy that prevents online witch-hunts and “doxing” (posting someone’s private information with malicious intent).  At the same time, I appreciate that Twitter has provided a valuable alternative to the traditional press.

I found one critique particularly interesting, which originated from Mickey Osterreicher, General Counsel of the National Press Photographers Association. Mr. Osterreicher tweeted:

Clearly Twitter [and] its lawyers have no understanding that a person photographed in a public place has NO reasonable expectation of privacy. If [you] choose to enforce this new policy, you will be undermining the ability to report newsworthy events by creating nonexistent privacy rights.

The key phrase in this Tweet is “reasonable expectation of privacy,” a concept that involves the scope of privacy protections offered by the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The argument suggests that by entering a public space, individuals relinquish any right to limit how their identity is utilized so long as the photo/recording was taken in an area that we generally regard as “public.” 

I strongly disagree. Say you go to the supermarket, and you slip on the floor in an embarrassing fashion. You curse at your misfortune and writhe from the pain of the fall. A passerby captures the humiliating incident in high quality video and posts it on Twitter. The video goes viral and by the next afternoon your lowest moment has already been viewed by millions of people around the world. During that process, someone discovers your identity, and your online identity is tethered to that embarrassing moment to be viewed by family, friends, employers, anyone… in perpetuity.  

In that context, whose right to free expression should take priority – yours or the passerby’s? It’s clear to me your ability to decide whether to be published should supersede someone else’s desire to publish you.  

The time is ripe to reevaluate the boundaries of our individual privacy. Established standards do not effectively account for the advent of smartphones and social media. The right to free expression should include the right to have some autonomy over one’s online identity. It is extremely difficult to scrub media that has been published online. However, for a company like Twitter, with its direct access to hundreds of millions of potential viewers, I find the increased privacy protections refreshing and appropriate.