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Simon Phipps

With a focus on open source and digital rights, Simon is a director of the UK's Open Rights Group and president of the Open Source Initiative. He is also managing director of UK consulting firm Meshed Insights Ltd.

Twitter and Core Values

The free speech aspect is important, but Twitter's run-in with a UK journalist reminds us that a company's core values can be diluted by unwise hiring

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I probably don't need to provide the context, but earlier this week, Twitter suspended the account of a journalist from The Independent following a complaint that he'd posted the e-mail address of the CEO of NBC with the intent to cause harassment (clearly his intent, in my view). It was later reinstated after NBC withdrew their complaint.

Apparently Twitter's policy says a bona fides complaint would normally be met with preventative suspension, followed by reinstatement after review and, if necessary, assurances it won't be repeated. For an organisation dealing with approximately infinite transaction levels, that seems about the only workable policy. It's no more reasonable to expect Twitter to exhaustively search the internet and make a judgement call on privacy before responding to every complaint they receive than it is to expect them to scan Twitter for violations.

And of course, they don't do that - do they? Well, in this case they did, and it's what they apologised for - not the suspension itself. This is a useful lesson in the dynamics of "terms of service" for free services. The remedy if you break them: you lose service. The remedy if Twitter breaks them: nothing apart from handwaving and sometimes a partial apology. Of course, it would be much worse if Twitter lacked a core concern for its users.

The fault in this case does not appear to be the Trust and Safety team's actions suspending the account, which appear to have been conducted correctly. It's that a team working on their NBC account acted improperly, pro-actively scanning Twitter for problems and advising NBC how to complain. Of course, as Matt Buchanan astutely writes, Twitter has a very clear interest in framing the matter this way - Twitter definitely don't want to leave anyone thinking it's their job to police the content on Twitter.

However the specific case works out, I think there's a more general lesson to learn here. They shouldn't mess with their (rather good) Trust & Safety policy; rather, they need to make very sure that, as they hire more & more media and business people, their corporate character and ethic remains intact. That's the big story here - "has Twitter lost its soul yet?"

Back at Sun, I believe much of the blame for the company's failure between 2001 and 2004 - from which the later, otherwise successful open source and hardware appliance initiatives were unable to rescue it - came from allowing rapid, indiscriminate hiring of new sales and marketing staff in the 1999-2001 window. That led to a huge growth in new hires who didn't necessarily share Sun's traditional, open values and who didn't rely on technology leadership as their prime guide. These new hires came to dominate the company's software business, allowing marketing-led thinking to take precedence over pragmatic engineering. They went on to create strategies that just couldn't deliver, including the disastrous "Sun One" middleware strategy. It matters who you hire.

Is something similar happening at Twitter as it grows? This incident isn't the first time Twitter teams have allowed enthusiasm for local goals to overwhelm core values. In Mexico, for example, student protesters were suspended from Twitter without explanation or recourse. This drift seems the inevitable result of an increased importance for the views of business partners, and Twitter needs to ensure it doesn't lose track of its core values around free speech. They are, after all, what made them succeed in the first place, and if there's one other lesson we learned over the last ten years it's that no-one is "too big to fail". 

Follow Simon as @webmink on Twitter and Identi.Ca and also on Google+


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