Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

On Prince Waleed and Twitter

Photo via @abdullahsayel

There’s been quite a bit of buzz over the news today that Saudi Prince Waleed has invested $300m in Twitter. I barely paid attention to the news at first, considering the massive list of companies that the prince’s company, Kingdom Holdings, has invested in (including Amazon, eBay, and PriceLine, among many others, not to mention his share in NewsCorp). Within hours, however, there was a hashtag, #AlWaleedTwitter, filling up with jokes; there were also concerns expressed from numerous individuals within the Arab world and elsewhere on the impact Prince Waleed’s shareholding might have on the company.

As I told Fast Company in so many words, I honestly believe this is a red herring. Here’s why:

  • As I wrote in the Cairo Review Twitter has fought hard for free expression.  As Twitter CEO Dick Costolo has joked, Twitter is “the free speech wing of the free speech party.”  And while they’ve been riled for months, years even, by rumors that they censor their trending topics (rumors which drive me nuts and simply demonstrate a lack of understanding of how the trending topics actually work), Twitter genuinely does have an excellent track record when it comes to free speech: They’ve stood up to the US government, the UK government, and individual users who abuse the site’s report functions.  Sure, they make mistakes–they’re hardly perfect–but compare Twitter’s track record on expression to that of Facebook, Yahoo, Google, or Microsoft and they’ll come out on top every time.
  • Prince Waleed now owns less than 5% of Twitter shares.  Sure, he gets votes, but I suspect he’ll be sorely disappointed if he makes any attempts to get the site to censor. But, as @ahmed pointed out to me, he doesn’t get any votes or board representation.  Also?  Saudi has blocked individual Twitter accounts in the past and I strongly suspect that they’d do it again rather than risk protest over Twitter censorship from the entire region.

Plus, as Neal Ungerleider points out, “Alwaleed’s true faith appears to be capitalism.”  Having a heavy hand over Twitter content doesn’t serve that goal, and while it’s fine to be on the lookout for shady investors (hell, where were all of these people when Russian company DST bought Twitter shares?), we shouldn’t be so quick to assume that an investment will result in censorship, if the company in question is otherwise ethical.

 

2 Comments

  1. is there separation between the Saudi government and Kingdom Holdings?

    imagining the uproar had it been a Chinese investment firm … would probably not have been allowed … thinking that maybe this also was vetted by some, or several, us government agencies.

    perhaps some of the reaction was as much against general government control, including usa, which has appeared at times overly subservient to saudi arabia?

    the cia/google joint venture investment partnership is one of the things that suggests a rather condensed nexus between corporates, including tech companies, governments, and policies. … along with lobbying, of course.

    plus a regional history of control on blackberries, a propensity for censorship, internet throttling … doesn’t help the reception of this investment

    one thing seems certain, there will be increasing intensity in the “arab spring” in the region as paradigms shift, so time itself will let us know about our intuitions.

    enjoy, gregory

    • to add one more possibility for the small backlash .. a distrust of twitter the company, which has felt to me at times like a bunch of stoners who lucked into a miraculous product and have never actually been clear enough to get with the program …

      i often say, twitter is so important now, it needs protecting .. but not just from governments, but from itself ..

      ok, back to #globalspring

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