Why does Twitter unplug third party services? Because they can

Last June, I wrote a post called Twitter is too big to fail in which I said the following:

“Twitter, like the internet itself, has morphed from novelty toy to essential tool in just a few years. While the world was still giggling at its name, Twitter became integrated into the information infrastructure and flow of such activities as emergency and crisis response, running a business and investing. In other words, activities that are not just “fun,” but are “mission critical.”

In that post, I also called for the following:

  • It is time for people who are outside the tech-bubble (where such issues are actually debated already) to begin considering the need for redundancy or alternative solutions to the service provided by Twitter.
  • Twitter needs viable direct competition.

I love Twitter.

When even some very savvy tech and new media people were in their “Why do people care what I had for lunch?” phase with Twitter, I was saying it would be saving lives within a few months.

So when I’ve written posts like the “too big to fail” one, it has never been merely about the company or service or people who own or run Twitter — it has been about the predictability of what happens when too much control gets concentrated in the hands of one entity, be it a government, a cartel, a secret society, or college of cardinals — or a company.

I list all of those different types of entities because not all such centers of “too much power” can be regulated by some federal agency like the Federal Trade Commission, Federal Communications Commission or Justice Department.

When Apple decides it won’t allow an ebook reader iPad App to directly link to a local independent bookseller to purchase an ebook, that is clearly an unfair and anti-user act — but one that Apple can choose to defend in the courts for decades and because it’s Apple and not, say, Walmart or Microsoft, probably get the support of really cool people to explain why Apply should subvert the foundation of the Internet, the hyperlink.

And when Twitter decides that it wants to pull the plug on the way tens of thousands of people use a non-Twitter owned platform to manage their tweet-flow, the most disconcerting issue is this: They can. They have the power to do so. It’s their ball and they can take it home if they don’t like the way you play.

Now, when Twitter was all about what kind of sandwich you are eating right now, perhaps that kind of power could be concentrated in the hands of individuals who, no doubt, you and I would like to be friends with socially. But when Twitter plays a supporting role in global diplomacy or bringing down governments or helping parents find kidnapped children, the issue goes far beyond whether or not I like the individuals who created and funded Twitter. (Who, by the way, are indeed, very nice people who are among some of the most “walk the walk” folks I’ve known.)

The issue becomes whether or not the people who run Twitter can serve simultaneous roles as the exclusive host, regulator, justice-system and arbitrator of a global communications common carrier that now plays a vital role in affairs related to life-and-death, peace-and-war, oppression-and-freedom.

Twitter is too big to fail. But Twitter is also too big to unplug, without some form of arbitration, a third-party service it claims violates its terms of use as it has done with Ubbermedia. Note: I said without arbitration.

The issue comes from Twitter being two things: it’s a business. It’s a service. As a business, it’s worth a debatable number of billions. As a service, it is priceless until those who can unplug the third-party services have some form of checks and balances. (Reminder: This has been an internal debate at Twitter and not just a concern of “crazy uncles” like me.

The issue, for me, is summed up in this post Dave Winer wrote last night.


“What if, just saying — one of the revolutionaries in Cairo or Bahrain or Tripoli was using UberTwitter or Twidroid. Not impossible you know. What if they went to send a message, one that might save lives, and found out that Twitter had shut them off.

As luck would have it, on Monday, I will be pinch-hitting for Jay Rosen on the Rebooting the News Podcast with Dave. (Yea, yea, I know, a “pinch-hitting” baseball metaphor would have to include the, “Why would they go that far down into the Minor Leagues to find a pinch-hitter for Jay?”) I feel certain we’ll include this as one of our topics to discuss.