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Summary:

Twitter has argued that it doesn’t own a user’s tweets, but at the same time the company wants to control what users do with their content so that it can monetize the network. There’s an inherent conflict there that is becoming increasingly difficult for Twitter to avoid.

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As we and others have reported, Twitter was recently forced by a court decision to give up information about a user who was involved in the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York, including the user’s tweets. The company tried to argue that the protester in question owned the content he published through the network, and therefore he was the only one who could provide it — but the court disagreed. Twitter’s defence makes sense, but it also raises an interesting question: If users own their own tweets and should be allowed to control who sees them or has access to them, then how is Twitter justified in clamping down on or even cutting off various ways in which users can do that, which it continues to do? When it comes to ownership and control over content, Twitter seems to want to eat its cake and have it too.

Federated Media founder John Battelle noted in a recent post that the company’s argument in the Occupy case raises a host of questions about what it means when a user owns their content, and what responsibilities that should impose on Twitter. For example, shouldn’t users be able to display their tweets wherever they wish, or connect with whatever external services they choose to connect to? And shouldn’t users be able to get access to all of their past tweets, something Twitter has so far only done in certain special cases with users like Andy Carvin of NPR? As Battelle puts it:

“[T]his builds a case for other ownership rights as well, such as the right to repurpose those words in other contexts. If that is indeed the case, I can imagine a time in the not too distant future when people may want to extract some or all their tweets, and perhaps license them to others as well. Or, they may want to use a meta-service… which allows them to mix and mash their tweets in various ways, and into any number of different containers.”

Two conflicting visions of Twitter

In a sense, there are two Twitters. They aren’t completely separate entities, but two different ways of looking at the company and its purpose — and the tension between the two seems to exist within the company itself, as well as externally. One version is the open network for real-time news and information, which acts as a kind of utility for anyone to distribute their thoughts and content, and it is this Twitter that people like general counsel Alex Macgillivray and CEO Dick Costolo are referring to when they say the service is the “free-speech wing of the free-speech party.”

When looked at in this way, it seems obvious that Twitter would want to allow users like Occupy protester Malcolm Harris to control what happens to their content — after all, the network is simply the conduit for those comments, not the owner of them. In other words, it is more like a content-agnostic telecom carrier than it is a traditional publisher like a newspaper. As Twitter said during the Occupy case:

“Twitter’s Terms of Service have long made it absolutely clear that its users *own* their content. We continue to have a steadfast commitment to our users and their rights.”

But we’ve seen another Twitter emerging recently — at first gradually and then with more and more urgency. This version of the network is designed to control access to users’ content by restricting where and when and how their tweets can be displayed, which has meant cutting off the access to a user’s follower graph that services like Tumblr and Instagram used to have, and potentially threatening the way that other services like Flipboard and Storify handle tweets. The obvious impetus for all of this behavior, as we’ve explained before, is the desire to monetize the content that flows through the network, and in order to do that Twitter needs to control it more tightly.

The tension between the two is growing

Obviously, a court’s request for the tweets of a protester and Twitter’s relationship with third-party services are two separate issues. One is a legal situation where the company has to tread very carefully, since there are some significant risks to asserting ownership — including the fact that it could make Twitter liable for defamatory or otherwise illegal statements expressed by users. The company’s relationship with third-party services, meanwhile (it is apparently going to remove support for outside image hosting services next, according to BuzzFeed) is arguably just a corporate concern.

That said, however, I think that at least some of the frustration that users like myself feel at Twitter’s recent changes comes from the tension between these two approaches. On the one hand, the company wants us to believe that it has no interest in controlling or asserting ownership over our tweets, because it is interested in free speech and is just a conduit for our content — but on the other hand, it wants to control what happens with our tweets, and even shut down services that we wish to use to display that content, in order to monetize something that we created. How does that help us as users?

Of course, Twitter has every right to do whatever it believes is necessary, in order to build a business that can justify all the money it has raised from venture capitalists over the past couple of years. But doing so also raises the potential for conflict between what it needs to do for monetization purposes and how users have come to think of it thanks to cases like Occupy. Finding a safe path between those two is not going to be easy — if anything, it is only going to get harder.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Faramarz Hashemi and See-ming Lee

  1. if a person wants their tweets ,or another persons then record them. I record them and i would never think not to. If I had the means I could record all of it.
    should I be forced to surrender all or any of my personally collected tweets ?

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  2. Policy changes at Twitter , is another side to the problem, that I cannot block anyone from viewing what I say. I’ve gone totally public and I agree to it the moment I post. Too grey for me understand Twitters responsibilities , or my responsibilities to my self, except that I own them.

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  3. Thanks for raising the issue, Mathew. You’re doing all of us a favor.

    Twitter won’t be able to have their cake and eat it too.

    I’m confident of that.

    Ultimately, by closing off distribution they’re forcing the conversation to stay inside Twitter.

    As a result, more niche conversational networks will emerge and eventually some of these will become primary source of content creation for the very broadcast actors Twitter is building/stealing from.

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  4. Greg Golebiewski Monday, September 17, 2012

    An example of Steward Brand’s classic “information wants to be free, and it wants to be expensive” scenario?

    Even more ironic, though, is that by restricting its API policies, Twitter killed also a few amazing new technologies that could possibly provide a solution for the natural tension between open and profitable. See here, for example: http://bit.ly/So6c2w

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  5. Clearly, Twitter wants to become more like a traditional publisher than a common carrier. That doesn’t mean, though, that they can’t continue to claim that the users own their content. Like many publishers, Twitter could just say it owns a single right to that content–i.e., to publish it on its network.

    All other uses the author would control. But that one use–how the content appears on Twitter–the author would have no right to.

    In traditional publishing, most authors are willing to make that deal. They can freely and effectively use their content elsewhere. In the Twitter version of publishing, though, there isn’t much value to the content (generally) outside of Twitter.

    I wonder, then, if owning your Twitter content really means much. Under the new Twitter approach, technically I own my content. But because Twitter owns the only valuable right to it, they in effect own the content entirely.

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  6. They may claim that we own our tweets, but we can’t actually have them – there is no liberation option, to download all [your] tweets/graph and do whatever you want with them. Until they provide that, just like Google did, they can’t claim we own anything.

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  7. Humm. sounds like profit sharing is in order here.

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  8. The argument in the article makes no sense. Just because the user owns his tweets does not mean Twitter has to provide the means for the user to display the tweets in whatever way he wishes.

    The user can decide to or to not put his tweets that he owns on Twitter. If he does put them on Twitter, I do not see at all how that means Twitter has to make sure the tweets can be displayed in a hundred different ways that they make no money on.

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