Doing Well by Doing Good? Rights and Regulation on Twitter

Posted: 9 Sep 2011 Last revised: 12 Sep 2011

See all articles by Tamara Shepherd

Tamara Shepherd

Ryerson University - School of Information Technology Management

Thorsten Busch

IWE-HSG

Date Written: September 8, 2011

Abstract

Web 2.0 platforms promise to act as public fora, connecting people from all over the globe so that they can discuss the issues that matter to them. Yet the commercial imperatives immanent to contemporary networked sociality have been increasingly enforced by Terms of Service contracts that circumscribe users’ rights. In this way, Web 2.0 services have become quasi-regulators, with contract law outpacing state legislation around issues such as informational privacy and intellectual property. In attempting to balance this regulatory aspect of their commercial role and gain social acceptance, Web 2.0 companies often invoke the concept of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).

For instance, Twitter.com frames its mandate in benevolent terms, according to the logic of CSR, in statements such as: 'We believe that the open exchange of information can have a positive global impact'.1 Since internet corporations like Twitter often do have such a far-reaching social impact online, CSR policies work to reassure users that their rights as citizens, and not just as consumers, will retain some degree of institutional protection. Much of the time, however, CSR works as a mere marketing tool. This can be seen across a range of popular Web 2.0 platforms, including YouTube, Facebook, Second Life and Twitter, that profit from offering users free access to their services. Political trends toward deregulation and privatization enable such platforms to integrate user-generated content without much constraint from state legislation, and thus Terms of Service contracts regulate the appropriation of users’ free labor, the collection and use of their personal information, and the licensing of their intellectual property.

This paper uses the example of Twitter to highlight how a Web 2.0 platform, initially praised for its promise to bolster democratic speech by offering users a free 'real-time information network,' has mobilized the CSR ethos as part of developing its market share. An examination of Twitter’s Terms of Service and Privacy Policy indicates how the site’s positioning of itself as a benevolent social service has not precluded it from retaining a license over all posted content and from collecting and using personal information. In fact, Twitter’s seeming benevolence has rendered the site hugely successful in terms of accumulating the critical mass of users necessary to contribute their free labor toward the site’s growing value. Twitter thus presents a classic example of what business ethics literature calls the “business case for CSR”: the theoretical assumption that a company will 'do well by doing good', meaning that there is an economic incentive to ethically sound behavior. The problem with this over-simplified approach is that it only takes into account economic self-interest. It thus fails to properly reflect on the rights and responsibilities of corporate actors with regards to their stakeholders and society at large (Ulrich 2008).

From an ethical perspective, a more adequate approach to corporate responsibility is the language of rights (Wettstein 2008). In this context, we ask, what might be the role of business ethics or other normative frames around the protection of user rights in Web 2.0? And if Web 2.0 sites like Twitter have become the new regulators, what mechanisms could be put in place to increase user autonomy and control over their labor time, personal information and intellectual property? While answers might be speculative here, these questions are important to ask in terms of realizing something of what is at least a democratic potential of participatory Web 2.0 platforms.

Keywords: Twitter, social networks, ICT, user rights, regulation, corporate social responsibility, business ethics

Suggested Citation

Shepherd, Tamara and Busch, Thorsten, Doing Well by Doing Good? Rights and Regulation on Twitter (September 8, 2011). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1924566 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1924566

Tamara Shepherd

Ryerson University - School of Information Technology Management ( email )

Canada

Thorsten Busch (Contact Author)

IWE-HSG ( email )

Tannenstrasse 19
Saint Gallen, St. Gallen CH-9000
Switzerland

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