12/13/2012 06:12 pm ET Updated Feb 12, 2013

Time for Twitter to Self-Regulate

Last May, I published a piece about Hamas' Twitter stream or, to be more precise, about the Twitter stream of the "military wing" of Hamas, al Qassam Brigades. At the time, I was shocked not just by the fact that such a stream exists, but that Twitter would suggest that I follow it -- which is how I arrived at the stream in the first place.

I reached out to Twitter (via email and tweet) for a comment, noting that the Twitter rules include a prohibition against "Violence and Threats," specifically: "You may not publish or post direct, specific threats of violence against others." Twitter never got back to me.

The @AlQassamBrigade handle is careful to limit its Tweets to alerts about Israeli attacks on Palestinians (which are often fabricated), or posting links to news stories highlighting suffering in Gaza. But there were at least two tweets in which @AlQassamBrigade called for the murder of Israeli civilians and the destruction of Israel.

While it's hard to see how that doesn't qualify under Twitter's "Violence and Threats" provision, there is a larger point at play here. Writing in a recent piece on the news site, The Daily Beast, David Cole argued that holding Twitter accountable for Hamas' Tweeting simply because the social media platform provides a service to the group is akin to holding responsible companies like Pepsi and Coco-Cola, which sell sodas to members of Hamas, as well as Exxon and Mobil, which sell them gas, or broadcasters like radio stations and CNN, which provide news to the Gaza Strip, where Hamas is presumably tuning in.

But it's the last of Cole's examples that really help us understand the point about Twitter and Hamas. Unlike CNN, which does enable Hamas listeners to passively receive the news, Twitter's primary function -- the service it provides -- gives the group the power to actively broadcast out. And unlike Verizon or Google, whose services might also be used by Hamas, Twitter's empowerment of Hamas is specific: the handle is right there, no anonymity needed, with even a neat terror background to add some flavor.

Just as importantly, Twitter is not a fungible good, like Exxon's gas or Pepsi's cola. If Twitter -- or any other social media platform -- were to deny Hamas access to its service, the group would not be able to get that same service elsewhere through a secondary supplier. In other words, while it's literally impossible for Pepsi and Coke to prevent members of Hamas from drinking their sodas (even if they were to stop shipping to Gaza), it's by Twitter's consent that @AlQassamBrigade operates its stream on the site.

But there's a larger issue at stake, which is Twitter itself. The question is where does Twitter draw the line. If it's OK for an avowed terror organization (which is recognized as such by the U.S., the EU, Canada and Japan, among others) to recruit support via its tweets, is it not OK for supremacist groups like the KKK to spread their message, so long as there are no direct calls to violence? Would it be OK for NAMBLA to spread the message of pedophilia? Or even an individual rapist or murderer looking to encourage and celebrate crime?

This is the larger point: Twitter is no longer a cute micro-blogging site but a massive, open broadcast system. The power and access it provides makes self-regulation an absolute necessity if it wants to avoid a grim future of becoming the world's biggest gutter for lunacy, hate speech, terror and crime.

Commentators and pundits like David Cole have argued that Congress should pass legislation to prevent common carriers, such as Twitter, from being prosecuted for aiding terror groups. And perhaps they're right. But at this stage the issue isn't so much a legal one as one about Twitter's own standards. That is, we've reached the point where it's time for Twitter to start self-regulating by scrubbing terror groups like Hamas from its network so the government doesn't have to step in and do it for them.