SAUDI ARABIA'S Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Alsaud was in town yesterday, hosting a gala event with former President Jimmy Carter on intercultural dialogue and understanding. Bin Talal has invested millions of dollars in American academic institutions, including Harvard University, to promote Middle Eastern and Muslim studies. Not a bad idea, since Americans first heard of him when former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani sharply rejected the prince's contributions to a 9/11 memorial fund on the grounds that it was from Saudi Arabia, where most of the hijackers and Osama bin Laden originated.
Over 10 years later, skepticism toward Saudi money still exists. "Shove it" is fewer than 140 characters, and that's what some users of Twitter are saying in the wake of the prince's $300 million investment in the site. To hear them tell it, bin Talal is aiming for global domination through control of free speech. Throw in a few hashtags, and the whole controversy creates nostalgia for Giuliani's visceral bluntness.
The Saudi multibillionaire's relationship with the micro-blogging site happened to become even more of an issue during bin Talal's visit. This week, Twitter announced it would enable country-specific censorship of content on its site. This will allow governments, presumably ones that aren't so much into their populations expressing themselves, to selectively block tweets just as the company seeks to expand into new countries.
The social media response to the announcement, found at hashtag #TwitterBlackout, was swift and damning. One would think that Twitter, the agent of change for the Arab Spring and democratic uprisings, had just sold its soul to the Saudis. "You'd be naive to not see a connection," declared one tweet.
But that's more a conspiracy theory than reality. In fact, many of the protests against the new policy were from Saudi Arabia itself, proving just how ironic social media can be: The anger about Twitter policy was the most visible sign of a democratic uprising that country has seen since most of its neighbors broke out in revolt last year.
Granted, bin Talal has global influence, but he owns just 3 percent of Twitter. It's unlikely that Twitter would sell its soul for anything less than a majority stake, especially since social media hasn't been lacking for interested investors. The likeliest explanation for bin Talal's investment is that he simply wanted to make money.
Bin Talal is part of a royal family not known for its modernity, but he has been, for decades, a bit of a prodigal nephew: a successful investor, dubbed Warren Albuffett, who also speaks openly, and writes frequently, on the need for the Arab monarchies to get with the times or else. He is so pro-Western that, not to be outdone by Giuliani, he publicly sided with critics of the proposed Ground Zero mosque.
At some stage after the first couple billion dollars, its difficult to keep track of all the prince's investments. He is, like Twitter might appear to non-users, an enigma wrapped in money.
Of course, Twitter's new policy helps its business move into new markets. But that's only part of the story. Far from expanding censorship, the new technology will actually limit the use of blocking to only local jurisdictions. Until this announcement, Twitter had to remove any disputed content globally; it would simply disappear. Most nations, from Germany to Syria, have greater free speech limitations than the United States. But Twitter will still have the capacity to distribute the content outside the offended country.
Without the Saudi money, the Twitter policy may have been seen as a balanced approach to the challenge of how best to remain accessible in countries where some of its content may be censored. With the Saudi money, alas, Twitter's new policy is inevitably viewed as a sellout or worse.
That's unfortunate, because bin Talal's involvement in Twitter is just as likely to make the medium more attainable to Arabs. Since Arabic-language content is the fastest growing sector on Twitter, it may even be that the future revolution was just funded by the Saudi royal family. Now, wouldn't that be #ironic.