Twitter declares war on sharing location information about others after banning account that tracks Elon Musk’s private jet
Twitter Wednesday suspended an account that used publicly available flight data to track Elon Musk’s private jet, despite the social media platform’s new owner’s pledge to maintain it due to his principles of freedom of expression.
Then, hours later, Musk brought back the jet tracking account after imposing new terms on all Twitter users – no more sharing anyone’s current location.
Tweets from the widely followed @elonjet account were no longer visible for much of Wednesday. The account had over 526,000 followers a day earlier.
“He said it was free speech and he was doing the opposite,” said Jack Sweeney, a 20-year-old college sophomore and programmer who started the flight-tracking account, in an interview with the Associated Press.
Sweeney said he woke up on Wednesday to a flood of messages from people who saw @elonjet had been suspended and all his tweets gone. Launched in 2020 when Sweeney was a teenager, the account automatically displayed Gulfstream jet flights with a map and an estimate of how much jet fuel and carbon emissions he spent.
He logged into Twitter and saw a notice that the account was permanently suspended for violating Twitter rules. But the note didn’t explain how she was breaking the rules.
Sweeney said he immediately filed an online form to appeal the suspension. Later, his personal account was also suspended, with a message that he violated Twitter’s rules “against platform manipulation and spam.”
And a few hours later, the flight tracking account was back. Sweeney said his appeal was apparently successful. Musk and Twitter’s policy team then sought to explain publicly that Twitter now had new rules.
“Any account doxxing anyone’s real-time location information will be suspended as a breach of physical security,” Musk tweeted. “This includes posting links to sites with real-time location information. Showing places someone has been with a slight delay is not a security concern, so that’s fine.
General “Doxxing” refers to the public disclosure of someone’s identity, address, or other personal details.
For Sweeney, it was the latest in a long-running entanglement with the billionaire. The University of Central Florida student said Musk sent him a private message last year offering $5,000 to delete the plane tracking account, citing security concerns. Musk then stopped communicating with Sweeney, who never deleted the account. Their exchange was first reported by technology press briefing Protocol earlier this year.
But after buying Twitter for $44 billion in late October, Musk said he would let it stay.
“My commitment to free speech even extends to not banning the account following my plane, even if it’s a direct risk to personal safety,” Musk tweeted November 6.
Sweeney ran similar “bot” accounts to track other celebrities’ planes. For hours after the @elonjet account was suspended, other Sweeney-run accounts tracking private jets used by Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg and various Russian oligarchs were still live on Twitter.
But later Wednesday, Twitter suspended them all, including Sweeney’s personal account. He also operates Musk jet tracking accounts on rival social platforms such as Facebook and Instagram.
Twitter did not respond to a request for comment. Musk has promised to eradicate auto-generated spam from the platform, but Twitter allows automated accounts labeled as such, like Sweeney’s were.
His memo to Sweeney about the suspension, which he shared with the AP, said: “You may not use Twitter’s services in any way intended to artificially amplify or suppress information or engage in behavior that manipulates or disrupts people’s experience on Twitter.” But that justification was different from what Musk explained later on Wednesday.
Sweeney had days earlier accused Musk’s Twitter of using a filtering technique to hide his tweets, and revealed what he said were leaked internal communications showing a Twitter content moderation manager in charge of the Trust and Safety Division ordering his team to remove the scope from the account. The AP has not been able to independently verify these documents.
Sweeney said he suspected the short-lived ban stemmed from anger over the leaks.
Musk has previously criticized this filtering technique – dubbed “shadowbanning” – and alleged that it was unfairly used by former Twitter executives to delete right-wing accounts. He said the new Twitter would still reduce the reach of negative or hateful posts, but would be more transparent about it.
In its effort to ease Twitter’s content restrictions, it reinstated other high-profile accounts that were permanently banned for violating Twitter’s rules against hateful behavior, harmful misinformation or incitement to violence.
Sweeney said he originally started the Musk jet tracker because “I was interested in him as a fan of You’re here and SpaceX.”
In the weeks since the Tesla CEO took over Twitter, the @elonjet account chronicled Musk’s extensive cross-country travels from his home base near Tesla’s Austin, Texas, headquarters to to various California airports for his work at Twitter headquarters in San Francisco and his rocket company SpaceX.
It showed Musk flying to East Coast cities ahead of major events and to New Orleans shortly before a Dec. 3 meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron.
In a January post pinned to the top of the aircraft tracking account’s feed before it was suspended, Sweeney wrote that he “has every right to publish the whereabouts of aircraft” because the data is public and “every aircraft in the world must have a transponder,” including Air Force One which carries the US President.
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