Be Careful What You Tweet

Guy Adams, a reporter, had his Twitter account suspended after he tweeted complaints about a Twitter business partner, NBC. Twitter “proactively” brought the tweet to NBC’s attention and encouraged NBC to file a complaint. When NBC did complain, Twitter kicked Adams off. The basis of the complaint was that Adams had released “personal information” about someone else, which is against Twitter policy. Interestingly, in this case, that “personal information” was the public business email address of the NBC executive that Adams saw as responsible for poor decisions about Olympic coverage.

The story of Adams’ ouster hit the news, and Twitter, which has been much more likely to protect free speech than many other social media sites, nonetheless found itself knee deep in controversy, as did NBC. Sensing a PR nightmare, NBC retracted their complaint and Twitter admitted that it acted inappropriately by proactively flagging a tweet for a business partner.

There are at least two things worth considering about this situation. First, Adams was essentially calling for an email campaign against the NBC executive in protest of NBC’s decisions. So, by publishing the executive’s business email address, he was doing nothing more than giving potential supporters a place to focus their energies. This is conceptually no different from an organizer telling participants where a rally will be held. And, yet, Twitter and NBC considered this public business information to be “private” and the release of that information to be threatening to the safety of the executive.

Second, this incident raises an important issue about the ownership of popular online spaces. In a recent article, I discuss the potential impacts on protest of having so much online activity happening on privately owned servers. This case represents exactly the threat to protest that I discuss in that paper. Fortunately, Adams was able to raise enough awareness about his ouster to embarrass Twitter and NBC and regain his access to Twitter. But, that doesn’t mean someone else will be as lucky or as able to bring notoriety to the suppression of their speech.

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