Is Twitter Hard-Balling Users?

Twitter is starting to lay the groundwork for an actual business model by making some changes to its terms of service (TOS).

Michael Hickins, Contributor

September 11, 2009

3 Min Read

Twitter is starting to lay the groundwork for an actual business model by making some changes to its terms of service (TOS).At first glance, Biz Stone's blog post announcing changes to the TOS is as succinct and unassuming as a Tweet, summarizing the changes for those of us who don't like reading the fine print:

Advertising-In the Terms, we leave the door open for advertising. We'd like to keep our options open as we've said before.

Ownership-Twitter is allowed to "use, copy, reproduce, process, adapt, modify, publish, transmit, display and distribute" your tweets because that's what we do. However, they are your tweets and they belong to you.

APIs-The apps that have grown around the Twitter platform are flourishing and adding value to the ecosystem. You authorize us to make content available via our APIs. We're also working on guidelines for use of the API.

SPAM-Abusive behavior and spam is also outlined in these terms according to the rules we've been operating under for some time.

By the way, encouraging users to bypass the actual TOS makes for an interesting contrast with Google, which warns users "this isn't the usual yada yada" when it makes significant changes to its TOS, especially when things like privacy and liability are concerned.

Did you just yelp "liability?" Yeah, that's what I said.

An astute reader of GigaOM pointed out this nugget in the full TOS (not mentioned in Biz's ice-cream-smooth summary):

You are responsible for your use of the Services, for any Content you provide, and for any consequences thereof, including the use of your Content by other users and our third party partners. You understand that your Content may be rebroadcasted by our partners and if you do not have the right to submit Content for such use, it may subject you to liability. Twitter will not be responsible or liable for any use of your Content by Twitter in accordance with these Terms. You represent and warrant that you have all the rights, power and authority necessary to grant the rights granted herein to any Content that you submit.

That puts a whole other spin on "they are your tweets and they belong to you." What Biz really meant was, "they are your tweets and they are your problem, not ours."

Of course, there's nothing wrong with asking people to take responsibility for what they post. I'm just surprised that Stone soft-pedaled that aspect of the change to its TOS. And I'm also puzzled by something else, and that's Twitter's seeming to desire to protect its partners at the expense of its users. I'm not sure exactly what this means, and would love to hear your thoughts about it.

Is Twitter on solid legal ground? Can it unilaterally and unequivocally protect one party from liability at the expense of another?

As it grows up, Twitter seems to be waking up to the fact that we live in a litigious society. That's better than going at it with pistols at dawn, but our propensity to sue makes it hard to build a business model, particularly in such a brand new arena where there is relatively little settled law or precedent.

With all the talk about taxes and regulations stifling innovation, maybe it's lawsuits we should really be reining in.

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