Taking Twitter private is a move in the wrong direction. Who would you rather trust to decide what counts as acceptable public speech, the board of a public company with extensive and onerous reporting requirements OR an individual with very little in the way of public accountability? Perhaps more importantly and urgently, if Twitter’s business model becomes a prime example of Surveillance Capitalism then the public will know about this if it’s still public (by reading between the lines of SEC filings) whereas the private play would make this business model much harder to suss out.
The case for Public Ownership
Under common law, publicly traded companies have something called the Duty of Loyalty, a broadly defined legal principal meaning that decision makers for the company should behave in the best interest of the company (rather than themselves individually). Private companies do not have this obligation. If Twitter remains public then we the people get more information about how the business works then we will if it’s taken private. We will also know that management is reporting to a board of directors. The alternative, private, route is opaque and has a lot more flexibility in it’s governance structure – it could easily just be one raving ‘free speech’ fanatic.
The governing boards of publicly traded companies are ultimately guided by their fiduciary duty to shareholders; if someone can prove the company (board and management) made a decision that wasn’t in the financial interest of the company’s shareholders, then there will be consequences. Class action lawsuits have been launched in the U.S. over matters as detailed as buying into a fund at a slightly worse rate than could’ve been found by shopping around.
Personally, I would like to see something like Twitter even more publicly owned than the stock market facilitates. This is simply because what’s in the best interest of shareholders is not always (or often?) in the best interest of the public. Major Airlines using their cash to buy back their own stock rather than off-setting their emissions or, say, subsidizing tickets for the small proportion of flyers who aren’t regularly burning kerosene to take meetings that could’ve easily been voice or video calls. One can think of myriad examples and there are many billions of dollars that one can argue over here.
I would like to see Twitter fully open source and community driven; The data generated by users to remain in their ownership (with options to make it available to interested parties, facilitating a market for useful information); governance and content moderation that aligns around principals of civic discourse (if you’re being sufficiently rude you’ll get kicked out of the room: Twitter as the Greek Forum).
Surveillance Capitalism & the Freedom of Speech Distraction
It’s not hard to imagine a future in which a private Twitter is embroiled in a Cambridge Analytica-esque scandal. Democracy is our best option because it requires we treat one another as equals. Leveraging user data in ways which users are absolutely unaware of denies opportunities to make informed choices; users do not meaningfully consent to have shady public school boys build highly personalized psychological profiles for use in emotionally charged targeted political campaigns. That’s about as Orwellian as it gets.
This is the major discussion in the digitally native world which doesn’t get the attention it deserves. The most common framing on the Web, from Russian bots and people alike, of Twitter related governance issues tends to focus on Freedom of Speech. Personally, I’m much more concerned about a for profit organization gathering copious quantities of data about my life then I am about Trump being de-platformed.
The belief that any regulation of speech whatsoever is a violation of the First Amendment is an extreme political opinion. Generally speaking, I’m opposed to extremists and don’t like the idea of one owning a wildly popular software product I use everyday for both professional and personal ends.
If you’re interested in reading/learning more about how social media companies are (and aren’t) regulated from someone who’s spent years embedded in the legal world of digital freedom of speech, here’s Jameel Jaffer from the Knight First Amendment Institute.
The idea of Freedom of Speech has different legal instantiations in the U.S. then it does among the U.K. and various European countries. Words can themselves be considered illegal in some European jurisdictions, whereas the U.S. requires consideration of constitutional rights and legislation. If you walk into a crowded theatre and yell “Fire!” you’re going to get in trouble in any case (unless there is actually a fire), it’s just administered rather differently.
You have to trust someone
Someone, or some combination of someone’s, is going to have the keys to the database supporting Twitter. These people will ultimately have control over how information is managed on the platform, the case for as much public scrutiny of this as possible seems self-evident to me. Barking like a lunatic about a fetishized interpretation of Freedom of Speech doesn’t even begin to constructively contribute to the major open questions about how Social Media companies should be regulated.