Bin Talal Stake in Twitter: You Can Still Tweet Easy

Twitter’s latest pot of money comes from a source that has fans of the social network all riled up: Kingdom Holding, an investment firm owned by Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal. (Photo: AFP)

By: Jillian C. York

Published Friday, December 23, 2011

Social networks have played an important role in this year’s uprisings, from the organization of protests in Cairo to the sharing of videos from Homs. Though Facebook and YouTube have gotten the lion’s share of attention, Twitter – the simplest of social media sites – has chugged along steadily, playing a core role in the efforts of movements to get their point across to mainstream media.

Over the course of the past year Twitter has grown, becoming a household name and reaching more than 200 million users this year. And yet, despite that growth, the social networking site has struggled to ensure long-term sustainability. With a platform that doesn’t quite lend itself to advertisements, Twitter has instead relied upon venture capital, raising more than a billion dollars in less than a year from a variety of international investors.

Twitter’s latest pot of money comes from a source that has fans of the social network all riled up: Kingdom Holding, an investment firm owned by Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal. Prince Waleed, who clocks in at number 26 on Forbes’ list of billionaires, just after Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, also owns shares in US tech companies Amazon, eBay, and Priceline, as well as in NewsCorp.

The news on Monday of Twitter’s latest investor drew ire from activists in the region who, on Twitter, mocked the news using the hashtag #AlWaleedTwitter. Drawings, featuring the Twitter bird dressed up in a thobe (Arab robe) and ghutrah(Arab head-dress), went viral. Many observers also expressed concerns that the funding would result in a shift in Twitter’s relaxed content policies; but while, as blogger BeirutSpring put it, “on a visceral level it just feels wrong that so much Saudi money is being poured into Twitter,” concerns that Prince Waleed will influence Twitter’s policies are largely unfounded.

Kingdom Holding’s share in Twitter represents around 3 percent. And while that’s a substantial number for a single investor, it is without a board seat or voting rights, meaning the firm has no real say in company policy.

Prince Waleed’s interest seems to be purely financial, but even if censorship was in his interest, he needn’t bother risking Twitter’s global reputation for his country: Saudi Arabia has demonstrated an ability to censor the internet all on its own, and does so pervasively. The country blocks a range of sites, from those hosting provocative images or gambling to sites dedicated to women’s rights. Although the Saudi government has never blocked Twitter outright, despite its popularity in protest movements like #women2drive, in 2009, it blocked the individual accounts of two human rights activists.

More important than the specifics of this transaction, however, is Twitter’s reputation, one that the company has worked hard to cultivate. The company’s CEO, Dick Costolo, recently referred to Twitter as “the free speech wing of the free speech party,” a statement that would sound like hyperbole if it weren’t, well, true.

Twitter, which played a large role in disseminating information about the uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere in the region, has consistently stood up in favor of free expression. In January, shortly after the initial release of Wikileaks cables, Twitter was issued a demand, coupled with a gag order, by the US Department of Justice to hand over detailed records of several users alleged to have been involved with Wikileaks. Twitter stood up against the demand, asking that the gag order be lifted and notifying their users before being forced to turn over the information. Shortly thereafter, Twitter released a statement on their blog, dubbed ‘The Tweets Must Flow,’ noting their belief in freedom of expression as an essential right.

Later, in the wake of the London riots, Twitter played a close hand when invited to meet with UK authorities; in contrast to their fellow invitees RIM and Facebook – both of which appeared eager to engage with authorities – Twitter took a cautious approach, simply stating that they would be “happy to talk” with Home Minister Theresa May.

Although thus far entirely unfounded, Twitter has faced other complaints of censorship from users. Supporters of the Occupy movement have complained of Twitter blocking their hashtag from the site’s Trending Topics, for example, a claim debunked recently by analysis group SocialFlow. Similarly, opponents of the Stop Online Piracy Act in the US have complained of their hashtag being censored, an ironic accusation given Twitter’s vocal opposition to the bill.

The type of concerns expressed over Kingdom Holding’s investment seemed mostly absent this past August, when Russian venture capitalist firm Digital Sky Technologies (DST) invested US$800 million in Twitter. DST’s CEO is Yuri Milner, a young Russian oligarch whose recent investments have drawn suspicion throughout Silicon Valley. But like Prince Waleed, Milner doesn’t have a board seat at Twitter. In fact, no investors do: On December 13, it was reported that in August Twitter asked investors to stop attending board meetings.

DST also owns shares in Facebook, an obvious competitor to Twitter. But while Twitter has repeatedly defended free expression, refusing to intervene in user conflict, Facebook takes a more cautious approach, censoring various types of content and requiring the use of real names in an effort to maintain a more “family-friendly” site. While such policies are unrelated to DST’s investments, the fact that skepticism over Facebook’s policies in their wake has been mostly nonexistent demonstrates that the expectations users have of Twitter are in many ways exceptional.

Ultimately, the validity of concerns over Twitter’s dedication to free expression boils down to whether the company upholds its own stated values. While a healthy dose of skepticism in respect to any corporation is entirely legitimate, Twitter – in light of its solid track record toward free expression – should be given the benefit of the doubt before users begin crying of totalitarian censorship.

Jillian C. York is Director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation and writes for, and is on the board of, Global Voices.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect Al-Akhbar's editorial policy.

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