Is Twitter's Olympic knee jerk about money?

Twitter suspends a British journalist who happened to criticize NBC's Olympics coverage for doing something that seemed not to be against its rules. Might its commercial partnership with NBC have hooded its eyes?

Chris Matyszczyk
6 min read
An impression of one of Twitter's Trust And Safety team members. Greg Sandoval/CNET

This week, it's been a lot easier to love Twitter than it has NBC.

While the former offers a constant, instant stream of everything that's happening this second, the latter is doing its best to try and force you to watch your favorite Olympic event many hours after it happened.

It's a curious wonder that these two organizations are cahooting during these Olympics. There's a special NBC Olympics curated Twitter page for which, one imagines, NBC might be offering some sort of financial satisfaction.

Which might, for some, lead to a troubling question: did Twitter suspend a British journalist critical of NBC's Olympics coverage for not breaking its rules, because of, well, business?

I know that last sentence sounds as though it was first written in Kafkaland.

However, Guy Adams, the L.A.-based correspondent for the Independent, had his Twitter account hung, drawn, and quartered because -- or so Twitter said in correspondence with Adams that he published -- he revealed the personal e-mail address of Gary Zenkel, president of NBC Olympics and executive vice president of strategic partnerships for NBC Sports.

There was a marginal problem with this accusation: it wasn't Zenkel's personal e-mail address. It was his corporate address -- which, so Adams said, anyone can get hold of with a couple of flicks of a screen or a keyboard.

Some have tried some flicking and have found it not to be quite so easy.

NBC readily admits it complained to Twitter. So why might this lovable, sweet, kind company -- yes, I'm still referring to Twitter -- have jerked its knee in such a ferocious manner?

Screenshot: Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

Twitter has long championed the idea that tweets must flow. Allow me to quote from Twitter's own "tweets must flow" blog post: "The open exchange of information can have a positive global impact. This is both a practical and ethical belief."

While I mused about that, I looked slightly to the right and discovered lots of Twitter's tweets, about, well, its brand spanking new NBC partnership.

It's inevitable, then, to wonder if Twitter's spanking of Guy Adams is a direct result of its sudden keenness to make money.

So I did a little digging within Twitter to discover what might have gone on. The fact is that Twitter only reacts when there's a complaint. It doesn't monitor users' tweets. What triggered this whole amusement is that NBC complained.

Once a complaint has been made, Twitter's support team -- charmingly called the Trust and Safety team -- goes into action.

My understanding is that Twitter's basic stance is that work e-mails are private. Which is one of the more bizarre stances of which some might conceive, and one that might have only been conceived, well, today.

The problem is that nowhere in Twitter's terms of service does it expressly say that work e-mail addresss are regarded as private information.

The support team apparently did its due diligence after a complaint, however, and went to work in order to discover whether Zenkel's e-mail address had been freely published. It decided that it had not.

On that basis, Adams' tweet was considered to have broken Twitter's very gray rules about what is considered a private and what is not.

This all seems heartily odd.

If Adams got hold of Zenkel's e-mail address so easily (and I have contacted him to ask just how he got hold of it), why couldn't Twitter's trustworthy forces? As Adams himself said in his reply to Twitter: "I didn't publish a private email address. Just a corporate one, which is widely available to anyone with access to Google, and is identical [in form] to one that all of the tens of thousands of NBC Universal employees share."

Indeed, it was quite clearly published a year ago in another anti-NBC protest. But perhaps that doesn't count. It certainly doesn't accompany Zenkel's NBC bio.

Of course, this wouldn't be the first time commercial considerations may have led a media company to make compromises.

The odd thing, though, is that Twitter has always been so keen not to make those compromises. It has wrapped its nubile arms around its naivete and idealism as if they were its teddy bears of childhood.

To eliminate a journalist's Twitter account for something that doesn't expressly break Twitter's rules (or any rules of common sense, for that matter) is to act as if its teddy bears have turned into Ted. A slightly malevolent Ted Turner, that is.

At the time of writing, Adams' account is still suspended. The reason, it seems, is that Adams hasn't agreed with the Trust and Safety team's interpretation of what is a private e-mail.

Suspensions on Twitter are generally not a big deal. Not as big a deal as outages, anyway.

What created this particular suspension is that NBC complained, hence triggering a Trust and Safety process -- one that, I am told, is scrupulous, as well as scrupulously fair.

Sources at Twitter suggest that because such a senior NBC executive complained, a little tension has blossomed in the two companies' commercial partnership.

A Twitter spokeswoman, however, would only tell me: "We do not comment on individual users' accounts."

No, I couldn't even get comment about the magical time in 2010 when Justin Bieber tweeted the phone number of someone he didn't like to his millions and millions of followers.

However, one's impression from Twitter sources is that if the enemy had complained, then the company would have done something about it.

It seems quite odd that NBC may not have foreseen the reaction to its tape-delaying of seemingly every event in which Americans would be interested. It has surely had plenty of practice and social media has developed into an ever-more influential beast since Michael Phelps last experienced pure bliss.

When a world-famous sportsman like Dirk Nowitzkiis tweeting that NBC is frustrating him by not showing Phelps/Lochte live, then you'd imagine someone might listen.

Instead, some might wonder why Nowitzki's Twitter account hasn't also been suspended for his insolence.

In NBC's case, its defense is "this is how we've always done it." There is no proof that showing events live and repeating them in primetime would make less money. NBC has simply not tried it.

In Twitter's case, though, Adams' suspension offers an even darker picture. Twitter's goal is to grow its ad business and expand its user base. If the price of that is to lose its character and bow to business partners like a judo competitor after a bout, then perhaps it isn't Twitter any more.

Or, at least the Twitter that was.

Some will think that's a good thing. Others will simply tweet off.

Those within Twitter, though, want you to know that they're still the same old Twitter, the same old San Francisco version of Winne the Pooh, honest -- and they wish this would all go away. Just as Adams, perhaps, wishes Gary Zenkel would.

However, one can't help imagining that commercial considerations just might have played a tiny, tiny role in this difficult round of preen-and-jerk.

Updated 9.20 p.m. PT: I have spoken at some length to Adams, who remains bemused. He insists he merely used Google to find the address and entered search terms that were a combination of Zenkel's name, company and the phrase "e-mail address."

"It took me 30 seconds," he told me. "I'm a journalist. Maybe I'm better at it than some others. Maybe it would take other people a minute."

He is eager to get his Twitter account back, as he has a baby arriving shortly and he would very much like to tweet a few pictures.

He says he has tried calling Twitter, but has not received a return call and he still cannot fathom what it is that he has supposedly done wrong.