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Dick Costolo is right about what Twitter has done for free speech

July 2, 2015, 11:19 PM UTC
Photograph by David Paul Morris — Bloomberg via Getty Images

Twitter is far from perfect in many ways, both as a social product and as a business. It has repeatedly vacillated about what it wants to be, switched product chiefs the way some people change their socks, bulldozed its third-party developer community (and then tried to kiss up to them when it needed them), and introduced too many features that appeal to advertisers but not to its long-time users.

But despite all of that, the service is still an incredible tool for distributing information in real-time, and for empowering free speech by virtually anyone with a PC or mobile phone, anywhere in the world. Dick Costolo, whose last day as CEO of Twitter was July 1, made this point in a piece he wrote that was published in The Guardian, arguing that while the company started as a social tool for Silicon Valley geeks to stay in touch with one another, it eventually grew to the point where it “started to represent the democratic ideal of access for all.”

That might sound like a departing chief executive trying to gild his reputation as he exits a company. And there may be a touch of that at work in the Guardian piece—as well as the interview Costolo gave the newspaper after a speech in Spain, where he touched on some of the same themes. But whether he’s trying to shape his legacy (as Bloomberg Business argues) or not, there is more than a little truth to what the former Twitter CEO has to say about the role the service has played.

“Today, people can access information from its original source, instantly. This makes it much more difficult to use information as a tool for wielding power because information is equally, immediately available. It means there are more perspectives on a news story – from mainstream media, eyewitnesses or the newsmakers themselves. It means the record can be set straight when something is reported inaccurately. And that what constitutes a news story is not just decided by a select few, but by individuals all over the world.”

Costolo is right on this point (although this was not solely his doing, obviously). Almost since it launched in 2007, when it was still called Twtr and had a goofy logo that looked like it was a brand of chewing gum, Twitter has been an amazing tool for freedom of information, and for turning anyone with a smartphone into a “citizen journalist.” Whether it was Flight 1549 landing in the Hudson river, the uprising in Iran, Egypt during the Arab Spring, or earthquakes in Japan, Twitter was there providing real-time information, live photos, videos and commentary from those involved.

Of course, Twitter’s commitment to being the “free-speech wing of the free-speech party,” which Costolo did have a lot to do with—along with former chief counsel Alex Macgillivray—has had its downsides as well, including a vast outpouring of abuse and harassment that the company has had trouble dealing with. And plenty of people have used the platform to espouse all manner of offensive and hateful beliefs.

Twitter has run into a host of problems because of its free-speech principles, including being banned in Turkey and a number of other countries and shut down by dictators for spreading the news they didn’t want people to hear. It’s also being sued in France and elsewhere for carrying messages that breach the laws in those countries around homophobia, racism and other kinds of behavior. But ultimately, Twitter’s openness and the ability it gives virtually anyone to publish has been a tremendous tool for freedom of information.

“For most of history we have lived in a world with artificial barriers. Barriers to communication and the flow of information. Barriers based on status – political, racial, socioeconomic status. These artificial walls built between people limited our ability to truly see each other. They made it hard to have compassion for people living lives very different to our own. But these barriers are coming down.”

Despite its numerous faults and flaws, despite the ongoing chaos in the executive suite, despite its inability to satisfy the demands of Wall Street, there’s no question that Twitter has become a crucial tool. A tool for free speech, for empowering average citizens who are fighting against corrupt governments and for allowing those who feel their story isn’t being told properly to reach out to their own fans or audiences directly.

It’s like a group chat tool that the whole world can use, and that has both a positive side and a negative side—but in most cases the former outweighs the latter. There has certainly never been anything like it before, and for his role in helping to build and support that, Costolo deserves some credit.