Was Today Twitter's 'Don't Be Evil' Moment?

By Sarah Lacy , written on April 17, 2012

From The News Desk

Remember a few months ago, when SOPA was public enemy #1 in Silicon Valley, and sites were banding together to do a "blackout the Web" day?

When Twitter CEO Dick Costolo was asked if Twitter was participating, he effectively said, "No, we have a company to run." One thing we loved about that response was that while Twitter has been used as a tool of democracy, political grandstanding, and civic protest around the globe, the company itself wasn't taking a political position.

Today, Twitter has decided to take a stand -- albeit against something very different: Patent trolls. It released a new Innovator's Patent Agreement. It's a new way to award patents so that they stay in the hands of the innovators, except when used for defensive purposes. As the blogosphere has shown today, it's a PR and recruiting win.

Patent trolling is one of those rare issues, where nearly everyone making something good lines up on one side and nearly everyone wanting to make a quick dirty buck off of someone who has made something good lines up on the other. In that sense, it's actually a better fight to pick than SOPA. While the MPAA is a greasy organization, the producers, directors, actors, and films they "protect" are often pretty rad. But there's no good side to patent trolling.

So what's the problem?

Twitter's new rule is in a mushy middle. It's a grand statement that may not really change anything. "Defensive" is a pretty vague term. After all, Yahoo says it is suing Facebook because it is "defending" it's business. North Korea wants nuclear weapons to "defend" its borders. Certainly the current wording -- which allows action "against an Entity that has filed, maintained, or voluntarily participated in a patent infringement lawsuit against another in the past ten years" -- leaves the door pretty wide open.

But if Twitter were to toughen up the language, they would lose a key defensive weapon they may need in the future. Everyone who loves innovation should hate patent squatting, the same way no one wants a nuclear war. But you defend yourself in a nuclear age by having a big weapon pointed at the head of your biggest threat.

So Twitter is largely taking a stand here. And don't get me wrong, I love the message behind the stand. In fact, I am the one who called for the Valley to pull out torches and pitchforks against Yahoo. But this is uncomfortably close to Google's "Don't Be Evil" grandstanding. And when you take that kind of stand, you better be prepared to live it for the rest of your corporate life. Otherwise, it comes back to bit you.

The reason people throw rocks at Google over privacy issues or meddling with search results to prop up Google+ is that it held itself to a higher standard, when it went out and sold shares to the public market. Twitter is unquestionably drawing a line in the sand and saying this is a higher standard for the company. It will not patent troll.

So the first question is: Does it actually make a difference? Or should Twitter have gone to other startups and announced this as some sort of group effort instead?

The second question is: Will the company come to regret such grandstanding the way Google did?

One thing is clear: If more teeth are put into these agreements, it makes the likelihood that Twitter gets acquired a lot trickier, since a big asset companies buy in acquisitions are patents.

Twitter has drawn its ethical line in the sand. Hopefully it has the business to back it up.