Biz Stone Isn't So Sure About Twitter's Cozy Relationship With the State Department

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ASPEN -- Twitter has played a celebrated role in the uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa this year that have come to be known as "the Arab spring." The social network has been one of activists' favorite tools for quickly organizing themselves and raising support for real-world demonstrations.

The Ideas Report

Even before this year, Twitter had been seen as a catalyst for change in the Middle East. In June of 2009, protests following the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran had a notable social media component. One former national security advisor even said Twitter should get a Noble Peace Prize, an idea that Biz Stone mentioned in an article he wrote for The Atlantic's Technology channel.

Indeed, from most appearances, it seems that Twitter has happily assumed the mantle of "liberatory technology." Jack Dorsey, one of Twitter's co-founders who returned to the company as its executive chairman in 2011, even took a State Department-sponsored trip to Baghdad in March of 2009.

So, while many people are covering the "relaunch" of Biz Stone, Evan Williams and Jason Goldman's venture, The Obvious Corporation, I was more interested in Stone's attitude towards international affairs. I was legitimately surprised that Stone sat before a crowd at the Aspen Ideas Festival today and declared that Twitter had to remain a "neutral" technology and cast aspersions on Twitter's long-noted relationship with the State Department.

Here's his statement as I transcribed and lightly cleaned it up from my recording:

The thing we're facing now is that, you know, the State Department is suddenly really cozy with Twitter because they are like, "Oh wow, we were trying to get this done with AK-47s and you guys got it done with Tweets. Can we be friends?" But I maintain that it has to be a neutral technology because there are different forms of democracy. You don't want your technology, you don't want Twitter, to look like it's simply a tool for spreading U.S. democracy around the world. You want it to help for good, but you don't want it to look like you're in the pocket of the U.S. government. So we try to speak out and say that they have no access to our decision-making.

Or you can hear him respond to Walter Isaacson's leading question about what he sees as the positive relationship between information technology and democracy for yourself. This isn't a case of someone getting trapped on stage into saying something he doesn't believe.

Stone has made the very last point several times, but it's done little to dampen the perception that Twitter is a tool for would-be revolutionaries who want attention from the State Department.

Now that Stone is largely just an investor and advisor for Twitter, I wonder how Jack Dorsey feels about him calling Twitter's relationship with State into question. At the very least, it signals that not everyone associated with Twitter is interested in being seen as a tool of the oppressed.

What's your big idea? I'm wandering around Aspen looking for the most interesting ideas. Feel free to stop or tweet your ideas to @alexismadrigal.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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