Yesterday, journalist Guy Adams, who writes for The Independent, found his Twitter account had been suspended. The reason? Twitter claimed he tweeted the email of an NBC executive in charge of that network’s Olympics coverage in a way that violated Twitter’s rules on privacy. But why suspend Adams and not so many others, including celebrities, who have done the same thing?
Adams is back on Twitter now, saying that Twitter emailed him that NBC retracted its original complaint. This follows on news today that Twitter itself may have tipped NBC to the tweet and suggested a way that it could be used against Adams as a way to close his account. (Postscript: Twitter has now confirmed this).
Lurking behind all this has been the possible motive for Twitter to suspend Adams: its deal with NBC on Olympic coverage.
Censorship? Some Perspective….
Like many including Adams himself, I’m hoping to get answers from Twitter. I don’t think this was part of some heavy-handy conspiracy to silence Adams and use censorship to keep the tweetstream clean of anti-NBC comments. He was hardly the most notable person out there tweeting against NBC. The tweet that caused all this debate was retweeted 87 times, at the time I write this:
That’s a healthy amount, but in the ephemeral world of tweets, it’s not that widespread. In fact, it’s currently far outdistanced by the number of people who’ve retweeted him saying his account was restored:
Silencing Adams wasn’t going to reduce whatever problem many believe Twitter was in cahoots with NBC to censor. Nor have there been any widespread reports of other anti-NBC tweeters getting nixed. If this was a censorship campaign, it was pretty inept.
What’s Private & Twitter’s Rules
So while I keep reading headline-after-headline about how Twitter censored a journalist for being critical about NBC — which gives rise to support from other journalists and celebrities obviously concerned about a chilling effect — some perspective. Adams wasn’t suspended for being critical of NBC. He was suspended (correctly or not) for violating Twitter’s rules on sharing private information.
Skipping past how easy it was or not it was to find the address, since it was published at least once on the web before his tweet, technically that should have let Adams off-the-hook from having his account suspended. Twitter’s rules say:
If information was previously posted or displayed elsewhere on the Internet prior to being put on Twitter, it is not a violation of this policy.
It could be that Twitter assumed that the address wasn’t out there on the web previously. It could be that in checking for it, it didn’t search right. Perhaps it simply believed whatever NBC told it. None of these excuses help excuse Twitter for suspending his account. It shouldn’t have been done, and it should have been restored before NBC withdrew its complaints.
So Why Suspend Adams?
That leads to the other disturbing questions that have come up. Adams got suspended when, technically, he shouldn’t have. He believes, and said on CNN today, that he felt the commercial relationship came into play.
Twitter told me that it takes actions when it receives complaints. If the complaining party or someone authorized on their behalf doesn’t complain, then Twitter won’t take action. It also pointed me to its guidelines on this:
For a report of private information posted on Twitter to be processed, the report must be filed by the individual whose information is posted or by their legally authorized representative. If you are not an authorized representative, but you are in contact with the individual, make sure the individual knows to file a report through our forms. We enforce this policy to prevent false or unauthorized reports.
When Justin Bieber tweeted someone else’s phone number as if it was his own, apparently that person didn’t complain to Twitter.
When Spike Lee tweeted the wrong address, saying it was the home address of George Zimmerman, apparently the poor family that had to flee their home didn’t complain to Twitter.
Actually, it’s believable in all these cases that no one complained formally. More disturbing was the case of Laura Gluhanich who tweeted yesterday that Twitter never suspended the person who posted her home address and threatened to dismember her, even after she reported the account. She was told to contact the police, and the account apparently stayed active.
Defining “Private” Is Hard; Enforce On Appropriate Behavior
All this leads to one of the real problems. It’s not that Twitter is trying to censor on behalf of NBC. Twitter’s trying to protect people’s privacy — which is admirable, it really is — but clearly pretty screwed up on how it handles things.
Trying to define what’s private or not on the basis if it’s on the web or not is a bad rule. Home addresses are often on the web, if you know the right databases to use. Does that mean it’s open season on posting people’s addresses?
If someone puts a single reference to someone else’s phone number or email address, does that make it “public” enough for others to feel free that Twitter can be used as a mechanism to broadcast it?
Those type of rules really don’t work. Rather, Twitter more likely need to have a more flexible approach in deciding what’s deemed to be abusive or unacceptable behavior.
In Adams’s case, there’s an argument to be made that broadcasting to the world that everyone should flood someone’s personal email account isn’t acceptable. Adams clearly believes it is, as he wrote:
If it now displeases Mr Zenkel to get emails from those rightly-angry customers, then he is surely in the wrong job.
Wrong job or not, it sure would be hard for anyone to do their job when suddenly, their inbox is full of complaints. The message of discord could be delivered through other ways that Zenkel would have heard and been more able to get on with his job of fixing it, if he were so inclined.
Adams also said on CNN he didn’t think giving out an email address was as “invasive” as giving out a phone number. As someone who emails a heck of a lot more than talks on the phone, I disagree.
Twitter does have rules on what’s abusive behavior. For us all to have trust in those rules and Twitter itself, we need to know they are being enforced and not just because of a formal complaint.
If it’s obvious some celebrity has tweeted some personal information, they should face suspension just as Adams did, regardless of a formal complaint, not just because it’s personal but because acceptable behavior.
Better, perhaps Twitter needs to consider issuing warnings to allow its users who might have made a mistake to correct things. That certainly would have solved a lot of problems all around in the case with Adams.
Postscript (5pm ET): Twitter has now posted about the incident, offering an apology for how one of its departments helped NBC report Adams’s account to Twitter’s Trust & Safety Department for review. That shouldn’t have happened, Twitter said.
It also explained that corporate emails are apparently deemed private by Twitter, assuming they’re not posted online. Twitter didn’t apologize, however, for suspending the account itself despite the fact by its own rules, the email was already published.
My follow-up post has more on all this: Twitter Apologizes, Admits One Department Helped NBC Get Journalist’s Account Suspended
- NBC Olympics Executive’s Email Wasn’t “Widely Available” In Google
- Cashtag’ Ticker Symbols On Twitter Now Send Users To Search Results
- Instagram Hits 80 Million Users, Loses Access To Part Of Twitter API
- Twitter’s NBC Olympics Partnership: A Sign Of Things To Come
- Twitter Transparency Report Uncovers Actions On Government & DMCA Requests
- Twitter Takes Five Alleged Spammers To Federal Court