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Twitter photo-removal policy aimed at improving privacy sparks concerns over misuse

Twitter is expanding its ban on users publicizing private information to include videos and images of other people posted without their permission.
Matt Rourke
Twitter is expanding its ban on users publicizing private information to include videos and images of other people posted without their permission.

Updated December 2, 2021 at 10:53 AM ET

Twitter will no longer let its users publish private videos or images of other people without their consent, in a new policy expansion meant to prevent harassment and abuse on its platform.

"Sharing personal media, such as images or videos, can potentially violate a person's privacy, and may lead to emotional or physical harm," Twitter said in a blog post on Tuesday, when the change went into effect. "The misuse of private media can affect everyone, but can have a disproportionate effect on women, activists, dissidents, and members of minority communities."

Twitter says that before it considers the removal of videos or images, it will review such media only after the person who is depicted in the content without their permission, or a representative for them, has notified the company.

The measure is in part meant to combat doxxing, the practice of publishing another person's private or identifying information on the internet — such as their address or phone number — usually done with malicious intent.

But critics are concerned the change will encourage widespread misuse of the reporting tool, and say it leaves the power to decide what should or shouldn't be accessible to the public in the subjective hands of a social media company.

Emerson Brooking, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab, tweeted that the rule is "written so broadly that most anyone can lodge a complaint against anyone."

Public figures are exempt from the policy, Twitter said. The social media company assured users that "context matters," and that its private information policy "includes many exceptions in order to enable robust reporting on newsworthy events and conversations that are in the public interest."

Brooking added that a lot hinges on those last two words.

Critics say the policy lets Twitter decide what's newsworthy

Twitter said that media showing people participating in public events, including large-scale protests and sports games, are generally allowed under the policy.

That clarification doesn't assuage Ford Fischer, a documentarian who regularly films political activism and protests around the country. He says the policy's vague terms could allow law enforcement to evade accountability.

"It puts it into the hands of Twitter to have discretion," Fischer tells NPR. "I don't like the idea of journalism being sort of an exception that can be adjudicated on a case-by-case basis. I think there should probably be a presumption of, you know, it is right and proper to film things in public places."

He points to two instances in which YouTube has sent him a privacy complaint for one of his YouTube videos. One is a takedown requestthat points to a time stamp in which a police officer is seen ordering the press to evacuate an area during then Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation hearing; another complaint calls for the removal of a clip showing bodycam footage, which Fischer says he secured through the Freedom of Information Act, of an Ohio police officer tasing and arresting an agent from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

"I don't want it to be based on a reasonableness test that comes from a Twitter moderator," Fischer says.

The move follows similar steps tech giants have taken to improve privacy. Meta, Facebook's parent company, said it planned to end its facial recognition system last month over privacy concerns. And, as of October, minors and their caregivers can ask Google to remove their images from the company's search results.

The change on Twitter — which now applies to all users — catches up to the strict privacy standards implemented in other countries, including Australia, the U.K. and those in the European Union, where the policy is already enforced.

In theory, it's a new safeguard for abuse victims

Sarah Roberts, co-founder of the Center for Critical Internet Inquiry at University of California, Los Angeles, says the new policy gives victims of abuse and harassment new recourse.

"It will certainly give moderators an extra set of options when dealing with cases of third parties using the private information (such as physical address, legal name, etc.) for harassment purposes — a practice that is sadly not uncommon on Twitter," Roberts tells NPR. "Those targeted in this fashion are often already vulnerable in other ways, and the consequences in the real world can be deadly, such as in the case of SWATting."

For the time being, she says, it's wait-and-see as to how the new rules will play out.

The announcement came a day after Jack Dorsey's departure as Twitter CEO, and as Parag Agrawal steps in to lead the company.

Editor's note: Google, which owns YouTube, is among NPR's financial sponsors.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.