Over the past year, I’ve spoken at numerous conferences on how social media is impacting emergency preparedness and response. Often cited are the examples of where information was spread rapidly. One of the most frequently mentioned cases were the live updates about Terrorism in Mumbai spread through Twitter.
Yet when I recount these stories, I feel the audience tense up. Unvetted, unofficial information? What if it was used by “the bad guys”? This social media thing doesn’t appear to be beneficial at all!
A recent article on ReadWriteWeb declares: Twitter is not an Emergency Broadcast System. I scanned it eagerly: did they admit to the challenges associated with decentralized information? Was it an infrastructure problem: what if service was unavailable?
Nope: evidently TechRadium, a Texas-based technology company, “argues that it has patents covering the process for simultaneously notifying large numbers of people about emergencies through multiple communication gateways, such as cell phones, pagers and e-mail.” According to Law.com, TechRadium claims their patent rights are being violated when Twitter is used by organizations to send out bulk messages about emergencies.
I’m not an expert on Intellectual Property or patent law, but it surprises me that a patent can apply to a small extension of use of a product. As is mentioned in the Law.com article, it appears that sending out a mass email to your address book about an emergency would therefore be an infringement of these patent rights. I’d be interested to know if there is some clause about “primary” vs auxiliary use. Twitter was not designed for that exclusive purpose, although it can be used that way. Like abusing household cleaners: you can put a warning on the container, but you’re not going to outlaw the product just because people use it in unintended ways.
The article explicitly mentions the use of Twitter by organizations to send out mass messages. This is a big red flag for me – TechRadium didn’t seem to care about Twitter until they felt they were losing out on a sales opportunity. But social media makes it easy for anyone to be a publisher: if @CDCEmergency can’t tweet mass messages, can @jnwilliams76? Also — at its core, Twitter is ideal for spreading crowdsourced messages, so it accounts for the rapid receipt and dissemination of information. TechRadium appears to be more specifically for simply sending out “official” notifications.
Services like TechRadium are great when you have a known subscriber base, but Twitter offers other distinct benefits: the ability for people to find updates online without previously signing up. This overcomes some of the barriers of traditional emergency preparation programs, where people are only motivated to act when the situation arises. With Twitter, individuals are already using the service. Compare this to a separate system like TechRadium, where individuals may have to make a conscious effort to subscribe. Again: this comes back to the primary purpose of the service: most people on Twitter likely aren’t only signing up to subscribe to emergency alerts.
Does TechRadium have a right to feel their Intellectual Property is being infringed upon? Should Twitter be used for mass emergency broadcasts?