Twitter apologises for suspending account of NBC Olympics’ biggest critic

1 Aug 2012

Twitter’s latest blog post sees the brand trying to explain why a British journalist’s account was recently suspended in a blunder that has damaged the network’s reputation for putting its users first.

It’s unusual for Twitter to comment on issues with an individual account, but in this case where the issue has been widely reported, the microblogging site has deemed it necessary to give its side of the story.

The lead-up to this explanation, in brief, is as follows. The Independent newspaper’s LA-based reporter, Guy Adams, openly criticised NBC’s Olympics coverage on Twitter – as did many others, which saw the hashtag #NBCfail gain in popularity during the opening ceremony last Friday.

What singled Adams out was the fact that one of his tweets contained the email address of Gary Zenkel, the NBC executive in charge of the network’s Olympics coverage, encouraging users to direct their complaints his way. Shortly after this, Adams’ account was temporarily suspended by Twitter’s Trust and Safety team as it is the network’s policy to protect the private contact information of its users and take action on users that publish others’ details.

Questionable action

This procedure seems reasonable enough. However, it all becomes a bit murky now that Twitter and NBC have formed a partnership for the Olympics, and it has since been revealed that policies weren’t followed so strictly by all Twitter staff.

Twitter’s Trust and Safety team do not monitor accounts, but rather they respond to complaints from users. In this case, the person whose contact information was shared has to have made the complaint for Twitter to follow up with a suspension.

According to Twitter, the team working with NBC “proactively” identified Adams’ tweet as a violation of the site’s rules and encouraged NBC to report it. This goes against Twitter’s own policy to not proactively report or remove content on behalf of other users.

The Trust and Safety team, unaware of this indiscretion, proceeded as they would normally and temporarily suspended Adams’ account.

Public or private?

Another issue with this complaint has been whether or not Zenkel’s email address could be considered private information. Adams argued that the email address he tweeted was not personal but a corporate address, and one that could be easily discovered by a quick online search and some deduction of NBC’s email conventions.

Twitter’s policy clearly states that the posting of non-public, personal email addresses of others violates its terms, but many consider the address posted by Adams as neither being public and corporate.

“We’ve seen a lot of commentary about whether we should have considered a corporate email address to be private information,” wrote Alex Macgillivray, general counsel for Twitter. “There are many individuals who may use their work email address for a variety of personal reasons – and some may not. Our Trust and Safety team does not have insight into the use of every user’s email address, and we need a policy that we can implement across all of our users in every instance.”

Twitter’s neutrality called into question

Clearly, Twitter needs to reflect on its policies following this incident, and ensure all of its staff are clear on how these are laid out. Suspending an account that was critical of one of its commercial partners is bad enough, but actively guiding the hand of that partner to lead to an account suspension has raised questions on Twitter’s neutrality.

NBC is now cleverly playing dumb, saying it was unaware of the repercussions the complaint would have. “Our interest was in protecting our executive, not suspending the user from Twitter,” its statement read. “We didn’t initially understand the repercussions of our complaint, but now that we do, we have rescinded it.”

Adams’ account has since been reinstated and Twitter has apologised for the part it played in his suspension. “This behaviour is not acceptable and undermines the trust our users have in us,” wrote Macgillivray. “We should not and cannot be in the business of proactively monitoring and flagging content, no matter who the user is – whether a business partner, celebrity or friend.”

Adams, however, appears to have come off best in this mess, with a few thousand more followers added to his account since it was reactivated.

Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.