Should Twitter Close Down @freeNYTimes?

by , Mar 23, 2011, 3:15 PM
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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.

0 comments on "Should Twitter Close Down @freeNYTimes?".

  1. Stewart Wills from The Optical Society
    commented on: March 23, 2011 at 3:53 p.m.

    This is actually the *first* thing I thought of when I heard that NYT was making its content free to inbound traffic from social media hubs. Amazing indeed if NYT didn't think of it, too.

    The problem, I suppose, is that even if this particular account were shut down, it seems that others would arise to take its place. I don't see how this can really be policed, unless the NYT just decided to close the social-media loophole.

  2. Renee Mcgivern from Spark Plug Consulting
    commented on: March 23, 2011 at 5:22 p.m.

    Twitter should take a stand for this well-researched, well-written, verified news source and clamp down on content theft. Generating this high-level of content is not cheap and should not be cheapened.

    Wiley folks like those at @freeNYTimes occur to me as traitors. Reporting like that in the NY Times is what makes democracy possible.

    I want The New York Times to thrive. I'll gladly pay for online access. And I think the paper should quit with the social media sharing. It's like the idiot restaurants who keep using Groupon to drive cheapskates to their tables.

  3. Ellen Lebowitz from Ellen Lebowitz Press
    commented on: March 23, 2011 at 6:28 p.m.

    No, Twitter shouldn't shut down it's access to free NYTimes. Twitter allows readers of other pubs, even those run by media barons to connect and share content.

  4. Ellie Becker from E.R. Becker Company, Inc.
    commented on: March 23, 2011 at 10:52 p.m.

    This is the most well-rounded and nuanced coverage of this story that I've read. In my opinion, the key issue is that we're at a moment in the evolution of traditional media where we have to decide if NY Times journalism is worth paying for. It will not exist in print for much longer. I've made the personal decision that this is something worth funding. I don't want to deal with paper and bought a digital subscription prior to the paywall deadline. This Twitter messiness is part of the transition and nothing more. I say let's get over how well or poorly the Times is using online tools as it works to re-invent itself. I say let's let go of the drama and get real that if we think it's important that incredible journalists go into harm's way so that we know what's going on in the world there's a cost and value to that. Let's just pay for it. Just because we prefer to read it on an iPad doesn't make it less valuable. Time to grow up.

  5. Daniel Schwartz
    commented on: March 24, 2011 at 10:23 a.m.

    Part of what makes social media, specifically twitter, so valuable is that you can make the news you are interested in - come to you. If there were ever restrictions placed on getting news through social media, the value of the given social network would decrease significantly. What papers like the Times should do - is encourage their readers to share articles through a "pay with a Tweet" type process (To read this article, you must first share it on Twitter/Facebook). Sure, this idea would take away from the paywall, but it would also increase the visibility of specific articles and ultimately increase traffic to the news website, which would at least open up more online advertising opportunities.

    Daniel M. Schwartz
    Director, Public Relations
    Maiden Media Group
    http://www.maidenmediagroup.com

  6. Gloria Buono-Daly
    commented on: March 24, 2011 at 6:40 p.m.

    Why of course not! I do not see anything wrong with this openness of news information. Years ago, we all would visit the local library and read the NYT for free. Not the internet's value is a virtual library hub of information. We all pay for the use of internet through our wireless, mobile, cable, internet, etc. The more advances and opportunities we gain through technological advances, the more the world benefits, including the likes of NYT. Just think how it helps the writers and editors gain popularity and fans.

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