As I write this, an interesting signpost in the advancement of social media and paywalls is upon us. To continue my theme of absolute obsession with The New York Times' new paywall, today I want to talk about whether Twitter has, or should, shut down the Twitter feed @freeNYTimes. It's an automated account that promises to tweet a link to every article in the Times, using the paper's own API to make the trick happen.
This is significant because one of the paywall's many holes is that even people who have reached their 20-story monthly limit for free content can read Times' content endlessly if they got to the site via links shared on social media. Enter Twitter, which is one of the most efficient ways to use social media to jump over the wall. (I should point out that the account has gotten more publicity than traction; it currently has just over 550 followers.)
Here at about 10:30 in the morning, all I know for sure is that the Times has made the request that Twitter shut down the account -- but. there's no indication on the @freeNYTimes Twitter page, or from Twitter, that the paper's request has actually been acted upon. However, in a sign of, yes, the times, it looks like the newspaper is exploiting its own loophole to ask Twitter to shut the account down; it is making the claim that the account violates the Times' trademark. (Update: A Twitter spokesperson said this afternoon: "For privacy reasons,
we don't comment on actions taken against specific user accounts. But I can confirm that the @freeNYTimes account has been suspended."
Meanwhile, the mirror account @freeUnnamedNews is still up and running. Its owner tweeted: "While I straighten out @freeNYTimes with Twitter, youcan follow @freeUnnamedNews, which doesn't contain a trademarked term!")
Still, trademark violations to one side, let's focus on @freeNYTimes' redistribution of Times links. On that basis, should Twitter shut down this site? Or the broader question: should Twitter be in the business of protecting paywall content in the first place?
In the case of the Times, the second question, in fact, doesn't even apply. The paper has already stated that social media sharing is A-OK. So, while it may not exactly be, well, nice for someone to share all the links -- as a way of making a statement that content should be free, or as an annoying little techno-prank -- it's not against the rules. However, as paywalls start to emerge throughout the online newspaper industry, what should Twitter's, or Facebook's, policy be towards such quasi-illicit link-sharing?
To argue the point, let's try this view of content on for size: content should be free only if its owner thinks it should be. We all know having your content free, and free to distribute, is just fine when you're a marketer, or CNN.com, or Gawker, or The Huffington Post. They've decided where their place in the marketplace is, and that's as free providers of content, be it JetBlue's Twitter feed, or the ad-supported route that some of the Web's most popular content sites follow.
The Times however, has decided to assign a specific value to its content and that makes the account, pretty much a conduit for "theft" -- as one commenter on @jeffbercovici's Forbes blog mused. But theft with a social media loophole, which puts it in the same category of, say, someone who, having coveted a fleece hoodie in the school lost-and-found for weeks on end, simply decides one day to take it. If that's not wrong, it's not exactly right, either.
But we're not high-schoolers. We shouldn't be engaging in the theft of hoodies or content, or engaging in premeditated loophole exploitation, which is what @freeNYTimes essentially is doing. Even if, technically, the account isn't doing anything wrong in sharing links, my sense is Twitter should seriously consider whether such accounts should be accorded a home on Twitter.
I have left out of this discussion the fact that @freeNYTimes has apparently already set up another account @freeUnnamedNews, which mirrors the other account without the pesky trademark exploitation. While this move should be expected, it doesn't really matter. What matters is how Twitter handles shared content that will increasingly sit on the far side of a paywall, and whether it sides with the "content is meant to be free" mob, or the content providers that help make Twitter what it is. If that sounds like a loaded way to put it, it's purely intentional.