Public Service Twitter?

All media eyes have been on Iran during the last few days, where the controversial results of the latest election drew thousands of people to the street and triggered deadly clashes between protestors and police forces. On many news websites, media audiences outside Iran could follow a minute-by-minute coverage of these events – although the incumbent regime attempted to shut down all independent reporting. In a powerful demonstration of the Internet’s liberating potentials, voices, pictures, and videos from inside Iran leaked out into the world. Once again, Twitter (and Youtube) proved to be the most widely used distribution network for this material – decentralized, viral, almost impossible to interfere with.

We should no longer be surprised and astonished by the powers of services such as Twitter. It is time we actively embrace them in our efforts to promote a global political discourse. Given their potentials for freedom of expression and democracy, states should play an active role in supporting and safeguarding them. Twitter still lacks a viable business model. Should we “bail them out” and make it a public service?

There are good reasons why we should. Despite its millions of users, Twitter is still loss-making. As a private business, it will naturally attempt to find ways of generating revenue. Whatever Twitters future business model will be, it will have implications on the accessibility and flow of information on the network. The longstanding debate over corporate influences on media content (see News Corp.) can give an indication of what these implications may look like. Twitter may not be able to dictate what its users are twittering, like a newsroom editor can. However, editorial influence may come disguised as filtering, ranking, and prioritizing algorithms. If Twitter was supported by public funding, it may resist such commercial pressures and embrace norms of professionalism and content neutrality instead. This would not be unprecedented. Public Service Broadcasters, like the BBC, have long been operating based on this argument.

A public stake in Twitter would also provide the service with a strong political backing, which is needed during international conflicts. Any attempt to shut it down would have to be understood as an affront against the international community. Indeed, Twitter can be deployed as a “democratic weapon” that facilitates the transition to democracy in countries like Iran – a transition led by the people of these countries.

Two big questions remain to be answered before we may decide to bail out Twitter. First, who should do the bail out? Twitter is a U.S. company, so President Obama may decide to integrate it into his foreign policy service (but also to promote his domestic political discourse). Alternatively, and more desirably, an inter-governmental organizations may fund the service, for example the United Nations or one of the Internet regulation bodies. This would allow more countries to support the idea and to subscribe to Twitter’s fundamental importance in promoting democracy and freedom of expression.

The second, and possibly more crucial question, is whether Twitter wants to be bailed out. This seems doubtful. Even though they may not generate profits today, they are convinced they eventually will. Even without profits, Twitter is already attracting millions in venture capital. They would hardly see the need, from a business perspective, to be bailed out. Would it have to be a hostile takeover? Not necessarily. Instead of calling it a bail-out, we may go with the more appropriate term “subsidies”, that would relief Twitter of some of its commercial pressures, in exchange for a promise to keep the service as open and democratic as possible. This agreement would also keep the current management structure at Twitter where it is, by no means replacing it by some state or inter-governmental bureaucracy.

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Many news sources still seem astonished by the powers of Twitter and similar services. Without them, there would be far less images and videos from Iran. We should move Twitter closer to the center of our foreign policy and our attempts to facilitate democracy and freedom of expression. Part of this move could be to provide public subsidies and to enforce the protection of Twitter’s openness and democratic nature, before commercial or political pressures take over. This is not a call for a state-controlled take-over of a private business, but a call to use the Internet’s liberating potentials to their fullest extent.

Update: See this NYT article for a more critical appraisal of Twitter’s role in Iran an elsewhere.

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