Twitter turns 7: What about #IPO and #freespeech?

It’s been seven years since the introduction of tweets and hashtags and writing in 140-character bursts and “following” people online. We’re talking Twitter, which has over this time been called everything from a waste of time to a revolutionary tool. It was widely associated with the Arab Spring; has given the little people access to celebrities and politicians and corporations; acted as a breaking-news source; even been used in war. (See Quoted: Taking Issue With The ‘Twitter Revolution’; Doesn’t The ‘GoogTwit’ Revolution Have A Nice Ring To It?; Tech Tools Called To Duty In Modern Warfare: Israel Vs. Hamas.) It has also been a forum for people behaving badly, and has brought to the fore issues about freedom of speech. (See Quoted: Whew! Weiner Lets Twitter Off The Hook.)

A couple of key questions about the San Francisco company as it matures are familiar: When will it go public? And as  a high-profile news and communications tool, will it continue its commitment to free speech?

The company says in a blog post today that it now has 200 million active users sending 400 million tweets a day. It is said to be worth about $10 billion, and speculation is that its initial public offering will come  within the next year, although CEO Dick Costolo told the Wall Street Journal last month that going public is not “necessarily inevitable,” and that the company’s main goal is to build a lasting, global business. It is a familiar refrain from Costolo: Two years ago he told the Mercury News, “we never think about or talk about when we want to go public.”

Among the social media companies that have enabled and emboldened Internet users to speak their minds, Twitter has most publicly shown a willingness to protect and defend free speech, and its users’ right to privacy — at least with respect to keeping their personally identifiable information away from prying eyes. For example, Twitter fought to keep from releasing the data of users who were being investigated for their ties to whistleblower website WikiLeaks, as well as the old tweets of an Occupy Wall Street protester.

But the company’s stance against censorship has evolved as it has grown and tried to balance its values with its goal of making money. Like other companies, Twitter has to follow different laws in different countries, and it announced early last year that it would selectively comply with censorship requests. And as the company has turned to corporate sponsorships and other ways to bring in revenue, it has stumbled, too. It suspended a journalist’s account during the Olympics last year after he blasted NBC’s TV coverage of the games — a move that seemed to stem from the company’s partnership with NBC. Twitter later reinstated the account and apologized. Costolo told NPR that it won’t happen again: “It’s not our job to be the editor of what’s right and what’s wrong and what’s good and what’s bad on Twitter.”

(Photo from Mercury News archives)


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