Vijaya Gadde ’00, Twitter’s general counsel, discusses censorship, trolls, and political discourse

Vijaya Gadde ’00, Twitter’s general counsel, had scarcely settled into her chair at the March 22 NYU School of Law Forum before the moderator, Professor Christopher Jon Sprigman, asked how she felt about the fact that, exactly one week before, President Donald Trump had told Fox News, “I think that maybe I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Twitter.”

Vijaya Gadde '00

Without hesitation, Gadde gave a broader view. “I look at what Twitter means in the world and what type of conversation it’s enabled,” she said. “And to me there’s nothing better than having a political discourse in plain and open view and having access to your elected officials and being able to hold them accountable. So, in that sense, I think it’s a great thing, because this wasn’t always possible before. The media often acted as a filter between ordinary citizens and elected officials, and now there’s a direct dialogue. Now the consequences of that direct dialogue are unfolding in front of us… but one of the reasons I went to work for Twitter is because it did provide this microphone for all citizens around the world to engage on issues that are important to them.”

Joining Twitter was the realization of a long-held goal for Gadde, who had been impressed by the youth and dynamism of high-tech entrepreneurs when she interned in Silicon Valley years before. “I wanted to go to Silicon Valley because I thought I would be taken more seriously, I would be working with people who were my age, and that I’d have more responsibility,” she recalled. Her instinct proved right: a mere 13 years after graduating from NYU Law, she was Twitter’s top attorney.

With a set of issues running the gamut, including foreign governments’ censorship efforts, employment law, and corporate acquisitions, day-to-day operations require Gadde to be perpetually nimble. “So much of what’s happening in the world can be reflected in what we’re dealing with on the legal team, so every day can be different. I’ve literally gotten calls in the middle of the night because we’re getting a tax rate in a particular country or because we’ve been blocked by a country because we refused to take content down.”

Twitter has found itself firewalled by the governments of China and Turkey for refusing to compromise user privacy or freedom of expression, and the company often challenges subpoenas and warrants from the US government as well. “We’ve always held political speech to be very dear to the platform,” said Gadde. “One of the most important functions that we provide as a service around the world is this ability to speak freely and pseudonymously if you need to.”

Gadde acknowledged the constant difficulty of balancing privacy protection for anonymous users against the threat of abusive content. In a 2015 Washington Post op-ed, she wrote, “Freedom of expression means little as our underlying philosophy if we continue to allow voices to be silenced because they are afraid to speak up. We need to do a better job combating abuse without chilling or silencing speech.”

Since then, Gadde explained, Twitter has continued to evolve in its approach to the problem. “We are providing a lot more [tools] to people to control the experience, but we’re also taking a lot of that burden that we put on users to police the platform back on ourselves to identify this content.”

In the wake of recent revelations about Russian attempts to influence the 2016 US presidential election through bots and trolling, Twitter has devoted more resources to ferreting out bad actors. Gadde pointed out, however, that some bots, such as those that provide information on weather and train schedules, are useful tools. “It’s not that bots are in and of themselves a problem. The problem is when you’re doing coordinated campaigns that are more about spamming people, malware, misinformation, that type of thing…. The bigger problem in general on the Internet is not just the bots, but it’s the information and the spread of information that may or may not be accurate.” She added that the ability of users to respond in real time to potentially inaccurate tweets serves as one check on falsehoods.

Gadde expressed the hope that Twitter could evolve into “a much more tailored and sophisticated experience that gets you the information you want to see when you want to see it” rather than “a big firehose of information” requiring considerable curation. She also asserted that Twitter should not be a primary political platform. “Twitter is not to be the sole tool for political diplomacy or political discourse. It can’t be. It’s 140 characters. It should not be driving an entire policy agenda or an entire administration.”

Watch the full video of the event (1 hr, 7 min):

Posted March 30, 2017