Twitter announced Tuesday that sharing private photos and videos of people without their consent will now be a violation of the company's private information policy, which already forbids sharing things like contact information and identity documents.
"There are growing concerns about the misuse of media and information that is not available elsewhere online as a tool to harass, intimidate, and reveal the identities of individuals," the company wrote in a blog post. "Sharing personal media, such as images or videos, can potentially violate a person’s privacy, and may lead to emotional or physical harm."
The news prompted widespread confusion about exactly what constitutes "personal media," how Twitter will enforce the policy and what sorts of exceptions the company will make. Twitter initially said that the policy would not apply to "public figures or individuals when media and accompanying Tweet text are shared in the public interest or add value to public discourse."
But that description left plenty of gray area for critics to pick apart. How would the policy affect photos of people in a crowd or a stranger wearing a funny hat on the subway? "I am SO confused. Does this mean that if I take a picture of, say, a concert in Central Park, I need the permission of everyone in it?" tweeted Jeff Jarvis, professor of journalism at the City University of New York. "We diminish the sense of the public to the detriment of the public."
Others wondered how this policy would affect, for instance, crowdsourced efforts to identify Jan. 6 rioters or citizen journalism.
Twitter responded to the pushback in a series of tweets that further clarified the policy, noting that images and videos from large public events "would generally not violate this policy." Neither would "eyewitness accounts or on the ground reports from developing events."
Still, Twitter's new policy seems to give the company ample room for discretion. The blog post said the company will weigh the public interest value of sharing private media in relation to a crisis or newsworthy event against the safety risks to the individual. That includes assessing whether the image is also being shared by mainstream media. But just what constitutes a newsworthy event remains in question.
"Context matters," Twitter wrote in its updated thread. "Our existing private information policy includes many exceptions in order to enable robust reporting on newsworthy events and conversations that are in the public interest."
The company's goal is to mitigate harassment that manifests in photos and videos being shared without people's consent. But its policy extends much further than harassment and could radically change how people share photos and videos on the service. Twitter's policy states that while first-time violators of the rule will only be required to remove the offending media, users who violate the policy twice will have their accounts permanently suspended.
The policy is mostly retroactive, requiring individuals who appear in the photo or video to first report it either themselves or through a representative. "We will always try to assess the context in which the content is shared and, in such cases, we may allow the images or videos to remain on the service," the blog post read.
This post has been updated to include additional information from Twitter.