Talking Turkey: Twitter Lawyer Touts Free Speech, RevenueSarah Frier
When Vijaya Gadde got an offer to join Twitter Inc.’s legal team in 2011, the Arab Spring protests were fresh on her mind.
Her father-in-law, living in Egypt, had posted tweets from Cairo that were critical of then-President Hosni Mubarak and photos of Tahrir Square in turbulence. Gadde saw Twitter as central in spreading messages of revolution and fueling uprisings in other countries where voices had been silenced -- lessons that now inform her work fighting blockades of the company’s microblogging service in Turkey and elsewhere.
“It showed me how important it was to offer the service in a way that allowed people to trust it, and that they knew we wouldn’t give their information up to governments,” she said.
Now Gadde, 39, who was promoted to general counsel in August, is in a position to lead Twitter’s free speech battles. As the company expands internationally, she is working in the U.S. and abroad to keep its service uncensored and protect users’ privacy. She also helped navigate Twitter through its November initial public offering, and is the top woman reporting to Chief Executive Officer Dick Costolo, who is contending with slowing user growth and a plummeting stock price.
The ban in Turkey this year, involving postings about allegations of a presidential candidate’s corruption, was the first government blockade since Gadde took over as lead counsel from Alexander Macgillivray. In line with Twitter’s tradition of defending free speech, even if a country isn’t totally free, she filed suit in March to challenge the ban, Two weeks later, access was restored, though some suits are still pending.
“When we get government requests internationally to take down content, we are being as aggressive as possible,” Gadde said in an interview. “In many situations where we have situations with the government, I’m the one talking with them. I need to get them comfortable with what we do.”
The shutdown in Turkey followed similar bans in recent years in China, North Korea, Pakistan, Iran and Egypt. The work can take its toll, Macgillivray said.
“At companies like Twitter, the tough thing is we’re very much under a microscope so no matter what we do there are going to be fans and detractors,” he said. “That makes for a relatively high-pressure environment and an always-on type of world.”
After steering the company through 15 acquisitions and several international office openings, Gadde took the top legal position just months before Twitter’s IPO. She played a central role in the legal aspects of the sale, Costolo said.
“I couldn’t imagine having gone through our IPO without her counsel and decision-making,” Costolo said in an e-mail.
Gadde, who was born in India and grew up in the town of Beaumont, Texas, has also led the company through further acquisitions to bolster advertising products, and fought off a looming intellectual-property dispute with International Business Machines Corp.
Her role in keeping Twitter up and running overseas isn’t just about free speech. It also has implications for Twitter’s bottom line. People outside the U.S. accounted for 78 percent of Twitter’s active users at the end of 2013, yet only 27 percent of its revenue was from international sources. Keeping and expanding that user base -- and making money from it -- will be key to the company’s financial success, Twitter said in filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
Meanwhile, total user growth has been slowing. Last month, Twitter said membership in the first quarter rose 25 percent from a year earlier to 255 million, decelerating from 30 percent growth in the prior period and 39 percent in the third quarter of 2013. Concerns about the company’s growth have dragged the stock down 54 percent from a post-IPO record on Dec. 26. The shares rose 5.9 percent to $33.94 at today’s close in New York.
Gadde plans to expand her team internationally, to a total of 100 people by the end of the year from about 80 now. While it’s the first time she’s been in charge of a company’s legal department, she spent nine years as an outside corporate counsel at Silicon Valley law firm Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, working on deals including the $4.1 billion McClatchy Co.-Knight Ridder Inc. acquisition in 2006.
“She always does her homework and understands quickly, then gets it done,” Larry Sonsini, the firm’s chairman, said in an interview. “I think she wanted to realize all her experience and put it to work as a true insider.”
Having Gadde in a high-profile role also helps Twitter’s corporate image, because the company has been criticized for a scarcity of women at the top. In December, Twitter responded by adding former Pearson Plc CEO Marjorie Scardino as the first woman on its board.
Katie Martin, a partner at Wilson Sonsini who has known Gadde since 2000, said she’s good at staying in touch with people she’s worked with on deals, even years before.
“She is very young, but she’s a major role model for a lot of the people that knew her here,” Martin said.
It’ll be up to Gadde to make sure the company stands by its values. Because of the way Twitter is designed, and because of its public role, it’s relatively easy to imagine the company infringing on users’ rights if it makes the wrong decisions, said Ben Edelman, a professor at Harvard University’s business school. Because Twitter controls all its content, members shouldn’t take for granted that they can keep their user names forever or criticize anything, including Twitter, in a tweet.
“These are lofty ideals, and in many respects Twitter has lived up to them,” Edelman said. “But by being in charge of all the content, they have granted themselves carte blanche to ban anything at any time for any reason. They can determine the terms and conditions by which an app connects to Twitter. They have to deal with the legal issues that come with that power and design.”
Gadde has sometimes bucked the conventions that other Internet companies are following. In January, companies including Facebook Inc. and Google Inc. celebrated a settlement with the U.S. that lets them disclose to the nearest 1,000 how many accounts the government has asked to surveil. Twitter stayed out of it, and Gadde held a meeting for employees to explain why -- Twitter was pushing to be more transparent and reveal more specific numbers, instead of a range like zero to 999.
“It just needs to be meaningful, and a range of 1,000 is not meaningful and masks the issue even more,” she said. “Our First Amendment rights as a company are being infringed upon.” The company said it was considering legal options to defend those rights instead of settling.
The battles happen around the world. Gadde has hosted disgruntled foreign dignitaries at the company’s home office and explained to them why she can’t block content unless it’s clearly illegal. If a tweet is blocked by one country’s laws, it still shows up in other countries where it’s allowed.
“We take a very aggressive position,” she said. “We’ve gone into court and said, ‘even under your laws, we don’t agree with this.’”