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Can Twitter Go Public and Still Be a Champion of Free Speech?

Can Twitter Go Public and Still Be a Champion of Free Speech?

With Twitter set to make its debut on American stock exchanges, a critical question looms: Can toppling dictators also be good business?

Over the course of its seven-year history, Twitter has gone from scrappy, disorganized start-up to a heavyweight of the social media revolution. In the process, it’s become much more than a business. From Tahrir Square to Gezi Park, Twitter has made itself indispensible to activists everywhere, providing a tool to decry abuse, organize protests, and help overthrow bad leaders. "Now we have a menace that is called Twitter," Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared in June amid widespread protests against his government. "The best example of lies can be found there. To me, social media is the worst menace to society."

Soon, that menace to society will be the hottest technology IPO since Facebook’s 2012 offering. But with a publicly traded stock, Twitter may find itself in something of an existential crisis. In establishing itself as the activist’s weapon of choice, the social media company has built up a well-deserved reputation for fiercely protecting user data and standing up for free speech. Is that an ethos, however, that can be squared with Wall Street’s relentless emphasis on profits and revenue? It is not difficult to imagine a scenario in which Twitter will have to sacrifice its values, at least somewhat, on the high altar of the quarterly earnings report.  

Among the three most important Internet companies today — Twitter, Facebook, and Google — Twitter occupies something of a unique position. "Twitter is the first major speech platform to come on the market with the intention of being a free-speech platform," says Jillian York, the director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. That identity poses a thorny problem for the company, which will inevitably change as it grows larger and its business expands. Other companies have already faced similar problems. "Google … started out as ‘don’t be evil,’ but as they grew, we’ve seen a lot more efforts to censor content," York says. 

Twitter has already run into trouble abroad, where governments, both democratic and otherwise, have not taken too kindly to a service that lets anyone and everyone broadcast thoughts onto the web. At the height of the protest movement in Egypt that brought down Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian government blocked Twitter. During a wave of rioting in Britain in 2011, Prime Minister David Cameron threatened to shut the service down. (He did not.) In July of this year, French courts forced Twitter to hand over user data to help authorities identify the authors of anti-Semitic and racist tweets. In China, the service is blocked entirely.

For a young start-up with private investors, shutdowns like these pose no serious problems. But how will Wall Street react to service outages? Each time the service goes down, Twitter is effectively losing money, and that’s something investors seem unlikely to accept. Thus, there will be an incentive for the company to make concessions to governments for the sake of achieving greater market share. "In the peaceful countries, it’s an easy sell," Santosh Rao, a managing director and the head of research at Greencrest Capital, says of Twitter. "They are good for revolutions but bad in that bad elements can start a rumor. Twitter is a double-edged sword."

A spokesman for Twitter declined to comment on whether the company had considered the implications for its freedom of speech commitments when deciding to go public. However, the company has already made some notable concessions to the censorship laws of the countries in which it operates. In January 2012, for instance, it announced a new policy under which it granted itself the power to restrict some content in accordance with local laws. "As we continue to grow internationally, we will enter countries that have different ideas about the contours of freedom of expression," the company wrote in announcing the policy. "Some differ so much from our ideas that we will not be able to exist there…. Until now, the only way we could take account of those countries’ limits was to remove content globally. Starting today, we give ourselves the ability to reactively withhold content from users in a specific country — while keeping it available in the rest of the world."

The question now is whether Twitter will make further concessions in order to widen its availability — and boost its profits. For instance, to tap into the Chinese market, would it be willing to strike a deal with the Chinese government that would all but certainly entail rampant self-censorship? So far, there is no indication that such a move is underway, and according to Rao, Twitter’s stock will be priced with the understanding that it cannot easily expand into China. But if there’s any doubt about Wall Street’s appetite for Internet companies moving aggressively into China, consider this: When Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg made a stop there on Wednesday for a meeting with the country’s Internet regulator, the company’s stock jumped 3 percent to an all-time high.

For those concerned about Twitter’s future as a defender of rights, the company’s announcement that it plans to go public was accompanied by a worrying development: the departure of Alex Macgillivray, Twitter’s general counsel and a champion of freedom of speech. "You don’t want business interests affecting judgment about content," he told the Times last year. "That is against corporate interests. It’s against the trust your users have in your service." The reasons Macgillivray is leaving the company now remain unknown.

The conundrum facing Twitter is one that’s faced every iconoclastic up-start: Should it take the money and run? We’ll know its answer soon enough.