Twitter has reinstated the account of journalist Guy Adams, but not before shining a somewhat embarrassing light on the tightrope that online corporations are now walking as both arbiters of free speech and income generators for their business partners.
NBC’s decision to force West Coasters to watch the Olympics on a time delay (presumably to charge prime time advertising rates and boost revenues) has angered viewers and drawn criticism from both professional and citizen journalists on social media outlets — including Twitter.
Guy’s complaints about NBC’s handling of the Olympics, popularizing the hash-hashtag #NBCfail, culminated in this fateful tweet:
The man responsible for NBC pretending the Olympics haven’t started yet is Gary Zenkel. Tell him what u think! Email: Gary.email@example.com
It was for this — the publication of what was deemed as private information — that Guy was suspended from the service. The questions we have been asking since are 1) Was this a reasonable step for Twitter to have taken? Or did they suspend a user for committing an act of journalism? and 2) Is the corporate email address of an outward-facing executive of a media company even private information? The email address can be found easily online — Twitter’s own test for private versus public information.
Thinking about the first question, it is very hard to assess what is and is not reasonable when Twitter’s responses to this sort of situation are anything but standardized. While Guy Adams was shut out, nothing happened to Spike Lee who mistakenly tweeted what he thought was the home address of George Zimmerman. Instead, it was the address of an elderly couple who reportedly ended up having to flee to a hotel in fear for their lives. This also pertains to the second question. A home address is certainly more private than the email of a prominent public figure.
So, after significant backlash, Twitter finally informed Guy via e-mail that NBC had retracted its original complaint.
But, that’s not really the end of the story. Since the revelation that it was a Twitter employee who alerted NBC to the original tweet and informed them of the complaints procedure, more perturbing questions have been raised “about how readily the company will trade what had been a leadership stance on free speech for commercial interests.” Moreover, as NBC’s Olympic partner, Twitter traded promoted tweets for on-air promotion and the San Francisco Chronicle is right to ask: “If Twitter relents to an advertising partner on a small matter, how can we trust it on the big ones?”
Twitter General Counsel Alex Macgillivray finally offered an explanation and limited apology in a corporate blog post:
When our Trust and Safety team receives a report from a user explaining that his/her private personally-identifiable information has been posted on Twitter, we investigate the issue and temporarily suspend the account if it is found to be violating our Guidelines & Best Practices…we make it possible for people to report posting of their private information because it may be used to harass or intimidate.
I don’t doubt that Twitter is in a difficult position as a private platform for public speech, but as Forbes’ Daniel Nye Griffiths cleverly tweeted:
Nobody wants Verizon to have an opinion on what they are saying on their phones. Much less to cut off their mobile signal because they are not happy with the opinions being expressed.
Here, Twitter is Verizon and “it has to be seen as not only disinterested but also largely uninterested in the content that moves through it.”
At the end of the day, the first amendment applies only to interactions between citizens and the government, so while millions might treat Twitter as an entirely public marketplace for speech, the platform is a private for-profit company that can do as it pleases. Interfering is not the best move for Twitter, but it is well within its rights.
- Read the tweets… (independent.co.uk)
- Journalist Has Twitter Suspended After Complaining About NBC’s Olympics Coverage (nymag.com)
- In Defense of NBC: There Are Two Olympics (theatlantic.com)