Today, thousands of websites, including Reddit, WordPress, Imgur, and Cheezburger, are participating in an online protest against NSA surveillance. It’s called “Restore the 4th” (as in, the 4th amendment against unlawful search and seizure) and the Internet Defense League says it will be the largest “online protest since SOPA.” There are no major blackouts planned, but numerous sites have added a splash page to their homescreen prompting users to sign an online petition against “unconstitutional surveillance of Internet users.”
One name you won’t find on the list of participating websites is Twitter. Like Facebook, Google, and most other major tech brands, the company has no plans to officially join the 4th Amendent campaign. But Twitter has done something far more significant than changing its homepage for a few hours on what’s usually a slow Internet day anyway: It’s actually implemented real policies that protect user privacy.
Yesterday, Twitter announced a new ad-targeting model. By matching its users’ encrypted email addresses with the email addresses on file with various advertisers, Twitter can serve up “Promoted Tweets” tailored to you based on your browsing history. At first glance that sounds like the opposite of a pro-privacy approach, but bear with me: Other companies like Facebook have already been tracking its users browsing behavior for some time. What makes Twitter’s approach different is that they’ve vowed not to spy on your web-surfing habits when your browser’s “Do Not Track” setting is enabled. This is in stark contrast with Google and Facebook, who say they often ignore “Do Not Track” requests because they’re “confusing” to users.
Additionally, Twitter has made it easy to “opt-out” of browser-tracking and tailored advertisements. All you have to do is uncheck two boxes in your Account Settings. Facebook’s opt out process, on the other hand, is so byzantine it took the Electronic Frontier Foundation 1300 words to explain it.
This pro-privacy approach is becoming a pattern for Twitter, which was one of the only major tech companies to not participate in the NSA’s PRISM program. Granted, almost everything a user shares on Twitter is already public, so Twitter’s data isn’t nearly as alluring to the government as, say, Google’s data. But it’s still an encouraging sign that Twitter takes privacy seriously.
Meanwhile, half of the Internet is putting up petitions and protests and feeling very good about themselves. I don’t mean to denigrate “Restore the 4th” campaigns as empty gestures. Online campaigns were instrumental during the SOPA debate (and, some argue, the gay marriage debate). But instead of lauding companies for adding a link to their homepage or tweeting with a special hashtag, we should praise companies like Twitter for putting their money where their mouth isn’t.