Tweaked Twitter Privacy Rules Would Ban Things That Bother Elon Musk — or Not

In a change to its anti-doxxing policy made Wednesday, Twitter barred users from sharing a person’s “live” location, a broad, vague, and immediately confusing prohibition. The policy was amended on the same day Twitter banned @ElonJet, an account that tracked owner Elon Musk’s personal private jet, along with the account of its creator, college sophomore Jack Sweeney. Though Sweeney’s private account remained banned, the @ElonJet account was reinstated in the afternoon, but banned again later in the evening.

Twitter’s newly revised “Private information and media policy” now forbids users from sharing “live location information, including information shared on Twitter directly or links to 3rd-party URL(s) of travel routes, actual physical location, or other identifying information that would reveal a person’s location, regardless if this information is publicly available.”

The new rule, which an Internet Archive snapshot of the page shows was not present the day before Sweeney and @ElonJet were banned, is at odds with Musk’s gesturing toward free speech absolutism. He claimed that his purchase of the social media giant augured a radically more permissive era for its users — specifically mentioning Sweeney’s account.

On November 6, Musk pledged that he would not ban @ElonJet. “My commitment to free speech extends even to not banning the account following my plane, even though that is a direct personal safety risk,” Musk tweeted. On Wednesday, less than a month later, Musk reversed course entirely: “Real-time posting of someone else’s location violates doxxing policy, but delayed posting of locations are ok.” Hours later, @ElonJet was suddenly back, without explanation, and subsequently suspended for a second time.

Musk appeared to confirm that the policy update was tailored specifically to suppress @ElonJet and prevent information about his private jet from reaching the public through Twitter. “Any account doxxing real-time location info of anyone will be suspended, as it is a physical safety violation,” he wrote on Twitter late Wednesday evening. He said users would be prohibited from even citing public flight data that resides on third party websites: “This includes posting links to sites with real-time location info.” In a second tweet, Musk claimed that a “crazy stalker” had followed a car carrying his son, but did not explain what this alleged incident had to do with aircraft radio transponders. Musk also said he would pursue legal action against Sweeney and “organizations who supported harm to my family.”

@ElonJet uses freely available public flight data to chart trips using Musk’s jet, whether he was aboard or not. Virtually every single aircraft in the sky broadcasts such location data through a legally mandated radio transponder. Other flight-tracking accounts created by Sweeney, such as one that tracks the planes of Russian oligarchs, remain offline.

The @ElonJet account had previously attracted Musk’s ire, particularly after Sweeney rejected a $5,000 offer from the world’s then-richest man to voluntarily shutter the account in January.

Late Wednesday afternoon, a Twitter Safety account clarified that tweeting someone’s precise location would be allowed so long as it was “not same-day” — a crucial term left undefined. The account added: “Content that shares location information related to a public engagement or event, such as a concert or political event, is also permitted” — though it’s similarly unclear what exactly fits the definition of a “public engagement or event,” or how the rule could affect news-gathering or the vast volume of ordinary inoffensive speech that merely observes that a given person is currently at a given place.

The total ambiguity of the rule — would it prohibit tweeting a picture you just took of Times Square, thereby disclosing the exact location of every stranger in it? — will give Musk a great deal of latitude in how and when it’s enforced.

The revised policy further says, “If your account is dedicated to sharing someone’s live location, your account will be automatically suspended” — a brand-new rule under which @ElonJet was unceremoniously banned, before being inexplicably later reinstated and then banned again.

A Twitter spokesperson could not be reached for comment; the company no longer has a communications team.

Update: December 14, 2022, 9:48 p.m. ET
This story has been updated to reflect the re-banning of the @ElonJet account from Twitter.

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