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Edward Snowden to Jack Dorsey: These Twitter features are 'painful' and 'terrible'

Edward Snowden and Jack Dorsey
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Edward Snowden and Jack Dorsey

Edward Snowden is known as a dissident and cybersecurity activist, but on Tuesday he revealed a more surprising technology stance he's passionate about: All the flaws in Twitter's user experience.

Twitter co-founder and CEO Jack Dorsey spoke with Snowden in a live question and answer session, mostly focused on the philosophical and legal arguments around government surveillance.

But the mood shifted when Dorsey asked, "What would you like to see us do, what would you like to see us improve, to serve you and to serve the world better?" Snowden didn't hold back in his response to the CEO:

"Twitter has tried to expand what you can fit into tweets, which I think is an important effort, particularly when you talk about content. The fact that when you add a picture to a tweet, you lose 22 characters? That's painful. Honestly, that's terrible."

"If you could recapture that when you add a link and things like that - you don't lose those character counts — that would be useful. And you guys have done a lot of work to try to fix that. But the problem is now, in many different clients — when people use mobile, when people use a browser this way or that way — suddenly the clicking-through actions don't work anymore. It takes you out of the Twitter client, it takes you into the web browser. It breaks the user experience. And that for me is a challenge.

"It might not seem very interesting. It might seem like one of those small things like, 'Oh, it only affects some tweets, that are really big and have a lot of characters in them.' But I think that kind of unified, integrated experience really has an impact. People don't like seeing the window change....It should be in line, in stream."

Snowden, no stranger to conflict, didn't stop there. While Snowden said he understood the "risks" and "controversy" around allowing users to edit tweets, he asked Dorsey: "But surely there's got to be ways around this?"

"Surely there's got to be a way that you can tag it as edited? If you click on the edit tab you can see the previous versions of the tweets, and something like that. There's got to be some ways to fix it out there. Just to correct things out there where people put a tweet out, it gets shared, and then they realize, 'Oh it had a typo in it.'"

The full video is on Periscope, where the exchange about Twitter's features starts around 27:30:

To be sure, Snowden said he doesn't use Twitter in the conventional sense — memorizing people's handles, rather than following them, to avoid connecting any Twitter users with the heavy surveillance he experiences in exile.

A former NSA contractor, Snowden came to fame after he gave journalists classified documents revealing a government surveillance program. The leak split the technology and intelligence communities: Supporters like former attorney general Eric Holder gave Snowden have said he did a public service, while critics, like venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, have called him a traitor.

The debates over privacy, cybersecurity and national security have continued in the years after Snowden's revelations, as companies like Apple have pushed back against terror investigations. Snowden, meanwhile, has continued activism from Russia, where he was formally granted three years' residency after being granted asylum from U.S. extradition.

Twitter has managed to win praise from the intelligence community, cracking down on thousands of accounts used by ISIS. But critics have argued it hasn't done enough to clamp down on harassment, amid calls that Twitter and Facebook referee more posts that are factually incorrect.

Snowden had a different stance.

"In the United States we have a constitutional amendment that prohibits the government from regulating speech, right? Free speech. The First Amendment," Snowden said. "So [people say], 'Well, we still want something to happen. Let's make the companies do this.' And they always start with the most offensive types of ideas ... things like terrorism.....We're going to get all these companies, Google, Facebook, whoever, to come together to make a database of what we think is terrorist content."

That sounds reasonable, Snowden said, because no one wants to see ISIS recruiting on the internet. But at the same time, there is no common definition of terrorism that could be applied both the the U.S. and regimes like Turkey, Snowden said.

"The problem of fake news isn't solved by hoping for a referee," Snowden said. "But rather because we as participants — we as citizens, we as users of these services — help each other. We talk, and we share, and we point out what is fake, we point out what is true. The answer to bad speech is not censorship. The answer to bad speech is more speech. We have to spread the idea that critical thinking matters now more than ever."

Twitter, of course, has seen its shares fall more than 22 percent over the past year, amid a rollercoaster of rumors that it might be swallowed by a larger company. Snowden said even without the full interface, he gets a surprising amount of value from Twitter.

"But I wouldn't say I'm an expert on Twitter," Snowden told Dorsey, who helped create the company. "You've probably got better ideas than I do."