Twitter snuffs an Olympics critic: smart play or censorship?

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The media is fuming over Twitter’s decision to suspend the account of a British journalist who used the micro-blogging site to toss barbs at NBC’s decision to time-delay its Olympic coverage over the weekend. The episode raises questions about free speech and corporate control of social media platforms. (Updated, Tuesday 9:30am)

For anyone who missed it, the brouhaha began this morning when sports site Deadspin reported that Twitter had cut off Guy Adams, an LA-based reporter for The Independent. Adams has been a standard bearer for the new #nbcfail hashtag and used his account to rattle off a series of British-inflected tirades about NBC’s time delay: “‘Sneak peak’ my arse”; “tosspot”; “Matt Lauer would do well to shut up, wouldn’t he?” and so on.

Adams apparently crossed a line when he published the email address of NBC executive Gary Zenkel and told followers to “Tell him what u think.” NBC complained to Twitter and shortly after the micro-blog site suspended Adams’ account.

Critics have since called attention to the fact that Twitter has partnered with NBC’s parent company to promote the games, and suggested that the companies decided to shut down Adams’ account as an act of reprisal.

In an email message to Adams, Twitter explained the account had been suspended because he had violated terms of service that forbid disclosing private information like a person’s telephone number or private email address. Deadspin and others have noted that gary.zenkel@nbcuni.com is a corporate address.

So who is right? Did Adams overstep a boundary or are Twitter and NBC wrongfully censoring a journalist? Well, from a legal point of view, Twitter is in the clear. The company’s terms of service make it plain that it can boot users off the site anytime and for any reason.

Twitter’s moral position is a lot more shaky. Its reason for tossing Adams is flimsy (the email he printed was not private) and, worse, they simply caused him to disappear altogether. If you search @guyadams on Twitter, the company will suggest users with similar handles but the original Guy Adams has simply vanished in the same way that disgraced communists would vanish from Kremlin photographs.

This policy of “disappearing” people without a trace is unhealthy and something Twitter should reconsider. The site has bravely opposed police gag orders and published a groundbreaking transparency report to highlight government censorship.

In the future, Twitter should show who it is barring from the site and explain why. In the meantime, it should give Guy Adams his account back.

Update: The Telegraph reported Tuesday that NBC claims that it was Twitter who informed their social media department about Adams’ tweets and informed them how to file a complaint. Meanwhile, respected social media journalist Danny Sullivan has pointed out that Gary Zenkel’s email address was not widely available. Other are questioning the appropriateness of using Twitter to initiate ‘email bombing.’ As of Tuesday morning, Twitter has remained silent in the face of what appears to be its biggest PR crisis to date.

(Image by Rui Vale de Sousa via Shutterstock)

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