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.

Mary Turner/Getty Images


We're 'Next' and Putin Deserves the Nobel Prize: What the Russian Press Makes of Syria

President Vladimir Putin's direct appeal to the American people in the pages of the New York Times is just one part of his government's messaging strategy on Syria. Russia's English-language media outlets are busy blasting out the Kremlin line on the conflict as well.

A few articles have focused on the American reaction to Putin's editorial on Thursday (see, for example, "White House Pokes Russia over Putin's Syria Op-Ed"), but many outlets have drawn attention to other criticisms of President Obama's stance on Syria. RT, the flashy Kremlin-financed news channel, is covering a range of critiques -- from former President Jimmy Carter to Madonna. The Russian media has also tried to gauge the American mood through polling: RT notes that a recent survey by the libertarian magazine Reason found that two-thirds of Americans feel that Obama's handling of foreign policy has been as bad or worse than President George W. Bush's. But that doesn't mean Americans are thrilled with the Russian disarmament plan; the state-owned RIA Novosti pointed to a Pew poll showing that the majority of Americans distrust Russia.

The Russian press is most interested in discrediting the story that the Assad regime used chemical weapons -- an allegation that has been supported by evidence collected by the Obama administration, the French government, the United Nations, and Human Rights Watch, among others. These efforts to present a counternarrative -- in which the rebels gassed themselves and civilians -- range from the credible but circumstantial to the just plain silly. On the more intriguing side, there's the account given by two kidnapped Europeans, who traveled to Syria as supporters of the rebels but wound up being held hostage until last week. They claim to have overheard a conversation with a rebel commander suggesting that the rebels were involved in the attack, but have not discussed details of what they heard. Less compelling is the idle speculation of Ray McGovern -- a former CIA analyst, 9/11 conspiracy theorist, and RT favorite, that the CIA fabricated evidence implicating the Assad regime in the chemical weapons attacks, and the video analysis of a Syrian nun. Across the Russian media, there's consensus on at least one thing: the rebels are "terrorists."

In addition to trying to discredit accusations that Assad used chemical weapons, the Russian press is going after the messenger: Obama. A piece by Pravda columnist Timothy Bancroft-Hinchey, who coined the term "FUKUS" for the alliance that intervened in Libya, asks if Obama is "the worst president in the history of the USA." Another Pravda piece branded Obama as "blood-hungry." The state-run Voice of Russia proposed Obama's Nobel peace prize be transferred to Putin.

Then, there's the downright paranoid. An editorial in RT muses that Assad's comment that the United States should "expect everything" in retaliation for a military strike makes it more likely -- not less -- that the United States will strike Syria, regardless of chemical weapons use and punitive measures. But nothing surpasses the Cold War mentality espoused by Gennady Zyuganov, chairman of the Communist Party's central committee, who told Pravda:

Now we can and we must protect. We must help, support and protect Syria; we must constantly keep it in mind that we will be next after Syria. It may be too bold a statement, but not that long ago, we could not even imagine that NATO would be the master in the Baltic, that SS legionaries would march on the streets of Riga. Nobody thought that there would be such a mess in Central Asia, and no one thought that in North Africa, where Egypt was the leader, all would turn into a bloody drama. Today it has become a reality.

Thankfully, not all of the Russian media is trapped in 1980. At least RIA Novosti and the Moscow Times, which is often more critical of the Kremlin, took a hard look at the realpolitik of U.S.-Russian sparring over Syria. Russia isn't all that invested in whether or not the United States attacks the Assad regime, argues a RIA Novosti piece, but with no real consequences if its confrontation with Washington fails, it's too good an opportunity for Washington to pass up. The Moscow Times framed the situation differently: Putin is laying a "trap" (or maybe three traps) for Obama. And regardless of whether or not the U.S. strikes occur, the real hazard is U.S. "mission creep."

If that argument sound familiar, it's probably not because you read it in RIA Novosti. The New York Times made the same point last week.

Correction: This post originally referred to two Danish documentarians who were kidnapped in Syria. The hostages were in fact from Belgium and Italy.