How far Twitter will go to maintain free speech?
Sep 14, 2012
Twitter's credibility at stake as self-imposed censorship threatens freedom of speech.
"If Twitter can't protect our freedom of speech, then it's not a platform at all." This phrase by Jeff Jarvis highlights the biggest threat to the world's most popular microblogging platform. He made this comment last month during the Olympics coverage when a correspondent from the Los Angeles Times criticized NBC's coverage, the US event's broadcaster, and a Twitter partner. Twitter's less clear business model than other digital media players isn't a threat to its existence. However, having its credibility questioned is.
Neutrality is a valuable asset for many digital media participants, but it's often unaligned in many inventories. If ignored, it may become an ex-item in their spoils.
In theory, neutrality should be easy to offer to a client. Every object in the universe tends towards this state until acted upon by force. Once the force is applied, maintaining neutrality becomes labour-intensive. When companies need to deliver a service or product free from interests other than the client's, maintaining neutrality requires more effort. But Twitter has no choice.
This logic doesn't only apply to Twitter. Any change that Google makes in its search algorithm raises questions about the integrity of its product. If Apple decides to stop supporting a certain application in a new product version, it faces the same issue. If Amazon or PayPal or any other provider succumbs to third-party pressure, they abandon their neutrality. During the Olympic coverage, Twitter did this by suspending Guy Adams's account after he posted an NBC executive's email.
Technically, Twitter's lawyers might be right to argue that Adams violated the terms of service. But by interpreting the law this way, Twitter damaged its own credibility.
In the previous media generation, it was naive to expect a company earning hundreds of millions of dollars a year to risk being unfair or impartial. Digital media has changed this, provided certain parameters are secure, like the prohibition of traffic shaping.
Twitter, Apple, Google, Amazon and other companies that handle user information need to commit to these users, provided they aren't breaking the law, as happened with the notorious video *Innocence of the Muslim*, which sparked protests in the Middle East, leading to the death of the American ambassador in Libya.
The fragmentation of information sources ended the old gatekeepers' power. If we're to replace a corrupt TV station that sells its interests to the highest bidder with a digital equivalent, then technological evolution was pointless.
The verdict is still out on Twitter, but it has more pros than cons regarding its credibility, its uniqueness as a media format, and its role as a democratic information disseminator in digital media. But as revenue and investments increase, so will challenges. And unlike the time when there were only a few TV stations, it's become much harder to hide skeletons in the closet.