Twitter’s dilemma: We own our tweets, but it still wants to control them

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