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Twitter: storms ahead
December 2017 / January 2018

“You  have no sovereignty where we gather”: John Perry Barlow, author of the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace (©JOL VIA FLICKR CC BY 2.0)

Twitter feels dead. As a business, it looks like a bubble waiting to burst. As a means of communication, it is running out of luck.

Donald Trump may splutter his hatreds on it. Journalists may treat it as more important than their newspapers. Legions among its 320 million users might believe that their Twitter persona is the most vital face they present to the world. But it has never made a profit, because Facebook and Google have cornered the online advertising market.

No one looks to me for investment advice. But I’m going to give it anyway. Sell. Dump Twitter stock. Pass it on to the greater fool. If the next panic resembles the crash of the late 1990s, then Twitter is ready to go down, and not only because of the overvaluations of a euphoric market. The freedom that lets tech companies make what money they can is dying. Child pornography, Russian cyber-warfare and terrorism are killing it.

The 1996 Communications Decency Act inaugurated the Internet Age in the US. The law was classic gesture politics. The politicians struck an unlikely pose as upholders of godly living by seeking to regulate porn. They could appeal to conservative voters safe in the knowledge that nothing much would happen because the courts would strike the law down. This they did, as a breach of the US Constitution’s protection of freedom of speech in the first amendment.

But a clause inserted into the act to meet the needs of then emerging tech industry proved more durable: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

Like feudal exemptions for nobility and clergy, the privileges of the tech companies once had a rationale. How could a site be responsible for everything its users uploaded? Twitter does not vet every tweet as an editor vets every article that appears in the newspaper. As their lobbyists told everyone who would listen, they are no more responsible for what appears on social media than a phone company is responsible for what callers say. Suppose neo-Nazis or Islamists phoned each other up to plan an attack. Or, to take a more common scenario, imagine a man threatening a woman with rape and death threats. Blaming a mobile provider would be pointless. Telling the mobile provider to stop all misogynists would be worse than pointless. It would be absurd.

It’s impossible to imagine the modern world without the freedom of the web. Perhaps something like the Trump presidency would have happened anyway. Maybe Russia would have found different ways to manipulate Western opinion. The culture wars that dominate politics started long before the web was running, and would still be fought, web or no web. Technology isn’t destiny. But it can feel that way when one form of technology dominates, the more so because Silicon Valley’s ideologues insisted that we had no choice. It’s not just that the web should not be regulated, they maintained, it could not be regulated.

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