This led to a pretty ugly discussion with one Twitter user in particular. I'll update this story with some details of the discussion later, but the more important thing to talk about is this poll and this article posted by Twitter user @samclifford.
The poll asks:
With regards to the delaying of Twitter's maintenance and the troubles in Iran, where do you stand on the issue of corporate responsibility?
And the three possible answers are:
- Service providers have an obligation to the safety of their users if a diminishing in the quality of service would have an adverse effect on user safety
- Service providers have no obligation to the safety of their users but may choose to get involved if they wish
- Service providers should do no more than provide the service
I voted for the first option, as it is the closest to my opinion, but I think things are a bit more complex than that, so this article is about what I think.
The main difference I have with the first question is that it talks about a fairly abstract obligation of safety to users. I think that rather than having just that obligation to users, Twitter should be actively taking sides in the current Iranian protests. The people who are protesting right now in Iran are the natural allies of the Internet-aware generation in the Western world, and one of our common enemies is the repressive dictatorship of reactionary priests that runs Iran.
Twitter is of course a capitalist, privately owned business. There are no legal obligations on it to support protest against dictatorships. But what happens if the Iranian people overthrow their regime and install a modern bourgeois democracy in its place? That democracy is bound to remember who helped it, and who it was that cowardly supported the old regime because they didn't want to rock the boat. I'd argue that not only does Twitter have an obligation to help the Iranian protestors, but that it is also in their strategic interests to win allies among people who are struggling for freedom right now.
On a more selfish level, many people on Twitter have noticed that CNN, a leading 24-hour cable news channel, utterly failed to spread news of the Iranian protests, while Twitter was ablaze with the news. It's definitely in Twitter's interest to be known as the place where news breaks first, and Twitter's ability to spread news quickly might just lead to it catching up on the cable networks that have dominated the 24-hour news cycle for the last two decades.
And those reasons might just be why Twitter agreed to change the time of the scheduled maintenance. In fact, it was a little more involved than that. Twitter's network is hosted by a company called NTT America - their Enterprise Hosting Services division, to be precise. It was NTT that had planned the maintenance on their system, so Twitter had to go to NTT and make a case for postponing the maintenance, and the final call was NTT's. Even if the decision was made for purely selfish reasons, it's the right one. Congratulations and thanks to Twitter, and to NTT.
UPDATE: Now the important part of the post is online, here's the details of this morning's silly conversation.
I noticed the #nomaintenance hashtag (click here for an explanation of hashtags on Twitter) this morning and retweeted a message asking for Twitter to postpone maintenance so that the protesters in Iran could use Twitter. Almost immediately I was challenged by user @Geordieguy who asked if I were serious. He also posted a message for all his followers to see, claiming that asking Twitter to postpone maintenance was "Luddism" and "bullying". The discussion went on for a bit, and I was misrepresented, and the #nomaintenance hashtag was said to be the same as lynchmobbing.
I pointed out that at least by actively supporting the Iranian regime (by attacking efforts to help their opponents), Goerdieguy had placed himself on their side. This was met with laughter, but it is in fact exactly what I meant.
If people under attack from riot police say they want and need a service like Twitter to be up so they can use it, and other people try and help them, and you attack the people who are trying to help, you put yourself on the side of the riot police. No ifs, buts or maybes. And if you put yourself on the side of the cops, expect to be called out for it.
Sure, it's a minor thing and Twitter being available isn't going to overthrow the Iranian regime by itself. A lot more needs to happen. But a free flow of information is absolutely vital to help rebellions like this succeed. It's not enough on its own, but without it, you've got nothing.