Twitter’s announcement that it will censor tweets on a country-by-country basis has triggered an immediate global outrage about free speech, as you’d rightly expect. But did we really imagine Twitter would do any different?
Until now, the social messaging service, darling of the media that it is, had been seen as a free-speech champion.
It was the only online service that didn’t immediately cave in to US government demands to release information about users alleged to be associated, however loosely, with WikiLeaks. Instead the company challenged the subpoenas and their secrecy in court and won. At least initially.
The company has tried to put a positive spin on this move, that it’s better than blocking the problem tweets from everyone:
“As we continue to grow internationally, we will enter countries that have different ideas about the contours of freedom of expression. Some differ so much from our ideas that we will not be able to exist there. Others are similar but, for historical or cultural reasons, restrict certain types of content, such as France or Germany, which ban pro-Nazi content
“Until now, the only way we could take account of those countries’ limits was to remove content globally. Starting today [January 26], 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.”
They’ve also committed to tell people when their content is “withheld” — glorious euphemism, that — and set up a joint venture with Chilling Effects, a website that informs online publishers of their rights when facing legal threats, and documents cease and desist notices sent to internet users.
But despite Twitter being headquartered in San Francisco, it’s still part of Silicon Valley’s venture-capital-driven culture — something I’ve described previously as an evil cult. And despite paying lip-service to its roots in the 1970s counterculture of the personal computer revolution, Silicon Valley is all about the money.
“The Tweets Must Flow,” Twitter headlined their original blog post about censorship, posted a year ago.
It’s an echo of the slogan “the spice must flow” from Frank Herbert’s 1965 science fiction novel Dune. All politics revolves around production and transport of the life-extending, consciousness-expanding and highly addictive drug melange from the desert planet Arrakis.
The irony must be lost on Twitter. “The spice must flow” acknowledged the corruption of everything good and noble to serve the spice trade. It was the Dune universe’s version of “Follow the oil”.
“The tweets must flow” is perhaps an appropriate slogan for Twitter users’ relationship with the service — although I’m always wary of that lazy tabloid tendency to equate heavy usage of an online service with addiction.
But for the company itself, the real slogan is “The cash must flow”. For an internet start-up — and especially for Twitter, on a company valuation of more than $8 billion when revenues are still a mere $100 million a year — the real addiction is to cashflow. Lots and lots of cashflow.
If the company must choose between not doing business in a certain country at all or acceding to their demands for censorship, I reckon it’s pretty clear which choice will win out. Every time.
Welcome to the toxic world of the internet start-up. This isn’t Frank Herbert. This is Robert Heinlein mixed with Ayn Rand, shredded fine and snorted by the kilogram.