Twitter’s new ban on sharing ‘private’ media is frustratingly vague

In keeping its space inclusive, Twitter often falls back on abstractions.

BEIJING, CHINA - OCTOBER 01:A man takes photos as police officers perform crowd control duty before ...
Kevin Frayer/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Twitter’s first day sans Jack Dorsey has already been an interesting one, thanks mostly to an abstract policy update that bans the sharing of “private media” without an individual’s consent. The update is an expansion of Twitter’s long-standing ban on tweeting personal information — like someone’s address or phone number — to prevent harassment and doxxing.

The policy update stipulates that any media posted without consent will be deleted if brought to Twitter’s attention. There are some caveats to the policy; images of public figures are allowed, for example, when used to “add value to public discourse.”

When an image’s potential harm is up for debate, Twitter says it may allow the image or video to remain on the site. Each situation will be assessed individually.

The new policy’s announcement has been polarizing, as made evident by the current quote-tweet-to-like ratio on Twitter Safety’s tweet about it. Twitter’s concern is safety, but the new policy’s purposeful vagueness might leave a bit too much room for interpretation.

Some boundaries to start — For all its hemming and hawing, Twitter’s new policy does make a few things clear... Somewhat clear. First, and perhaps most importantly, is that only the person depicted in the tweet, their parents, or a legal representative can report that it’s been shared without permission.

The full private information policy also takes time to delineate circumstances that do not violate the new terms. The following media is exempted from the policy:

  • the media is publicly available or is being covered by mainstream media;
  • the media and the accompanying tweet text add value to the public discourse or are shared in public interest;
  • contains eyewitness accounts or on the ground reports from developing events;
  • the subject of the media is a public figure.

Ripe for abuse? — The new policy leaves much room for interpretation. Too much, perhaps. For example, media depicting “public figures” is exempt from the ban — but who, exactly, is public? Is a police officer harassing a protester considered allowable, or could that officer request that Twitter remove the video? Twitter says large-scale protests are exempt “generally” — a term that doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in its enforcement potential.

The same goes for other exemptions Twitter has listed. Who is to say which media adds value to “public discourse” or is shared in “public interest?”

The problem with this new policy is one Twitter has faced many times over in other arenas. In attempting to be as inclusive as possible, Twitter ends up creating policies that are vague to the point of almost creating more issues than they solve. Which leaves us wondering whether or not they actually keep anyone “safe.”