KEY POINTS

  • Last November, the U.S. Department of Justice charged two former Twitter employees with acting as unregistered agents of Saudi Arabia.
  • Twitter purports "to power positive global change by fostering respectful conversations, creating deeper human connections and encouraging diverse interactions among individuals."  But the company acts without transparency, explanation or accountability in far too many cases.
  •  For better and worse, social media platforms have become our public squares. We cannot allow them to continue to behave as private kingdoms.

My name is Ali and I am a Saudi dissident.

Twenty-two years ago, the United States granted me political asylum. When my activism on behalf of women's rights, freedom of expression, and the right to dissent made it impossible for me to return to Saudi Arabia, America -- the land of the free -- took me in. Earlier this year, I became an American citizen.

But for the past two years, unbelievably, I've been fighting for my rights not in Saudi Arabia, but here in the United States. In May 2018, Twitter inexplicably closed my Arabic-language account, which had over 36,000 followers.

Twitter's actions are a matter of life and death for dissidents inside Saudi Arabia whose communications have been compromised by Twitter or its employees. The company must be held accountable for its actions.

Since Twitter banned my Arabic-language account, the Saudi government has arrested or disappeared people in the Kingdom who either followed me or contacted me via direct message on Twitter. While there is no way to know the exact number of those tortured, killed, or imprisoned by the Saudi regime, I know of dozens with whom I was in direct contact. I feel responsible.

Twitter has yet to explain why they closed the account and hasn't allowed me access to my account ever since. The company has refused to shed any light on the circumstances of my ban or whether the Saudis used information and messages connected to the account to crack down on fellow dissidents.

Last November, the U.S. Department of Justice charged two former Twitter employees with acting as unregistered agents of Saudi Arabia. The U.S. government accuses the two former employees, one of whom was a Saudi national, of using their employee credentials to gain unauthorized access to information about Twitter account holders and providing that information to officials of the Kingdom.

In an eerie echo of the recent hacks of Joe Biden, Elon Musk and others, one of the accused in that case was responsible for managing high-profile Twitter users in the Middle East, and so had access to the accounts of prominent figures in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. That case has received comparatively little media attention -- if it had, this summer's hacks in the United States would have been seen as part of a pattern.

Social media is a conundrum. On the one hand, Twitter is a vital tool for whistleblowers like me and for thousands of others who are dedicated to shedding light on human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia. Saudis rely on it to share information and strategize. On the other hand, bad actors use Twitter to target dissidents. Saud al Qahtani -- Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's henchman who oversaw the murder of Jamal Khashoggi -- used Twitter to follow me and exchange messages.

During the Arab Spring a decade ago, dissidents and reformers used Twitter and other social media platforms to organize and coordinate to a degree that would've been impossible otherwise. Twitter wasn't shy about taking credit for supporting democracy in the Middle East then, but they've since gone quiet about why they've shut down pro-democracy accounts like mine.

When Twitter silences a user or an organization, there is no court of appeal. Just last month, Twitter banned the account of grassroots organization "Unity 2020," which is seeking a third-party alternative in November's U.S. presidential election. Beyond saying that the group violated Twitter's terms of service, Twitter refuses to offer any explanation for silencing this movement.

Likewise, my repeated and persistent requests for reinstatement or an explanation as to why Twitter banned the Institute's Arabic-language account have been met with silence.

Twitter purports "to power positive global change by fostering respectful conversations, creating deeper human connections and encouraging diverse interactions among individuals." But the company acts without transparency, explanation or accountability in far too many cases.

That is why I have filed a lawsuit against Twitter. The company must be held accountable for its repeated violations of its users' privacy and for the damages that this abuse of its service causes them. For better and worse, social media platforms have become our public squares. We cannot allow them to continue to behave as private kingdoms.

Using social media as a tool for social organizing may be considered a crime by the Saudi regime, but it should be a different story in the United States. I can't know for certain whether Twitter shut down my account at the behest of the Saudi regime or simply out of fear. But I hope our lawsuit will help us -- and thousands of others -- get answers.
 
Ali Al-Ahmed is the founder and director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs.