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Twitter's breach of trust

While users have mostly gotten over Twitter's various outages and other growing pains, instigating the suspension of Guy Adams' Twitter account crosses a less forgivable line.

Twitter CEO Dick Costolo

Twitter has been mostly forgiven for its various outages and other growing pains. Instigating the suspension of Guy Adams' Twitter account, however, crosses a line that is less forgivable. The concern is not so much about a user's account suspension as it is about the way Twitter has handled the Adams affair over the last few days.

For those keeping score, Adams' Twitter account was suspended on Sunday over a tweet that included the corporate e-mail address of Gary Zenkel, NBC's top Olympics executive. It also happens that Adams, a Los Angeles-based reporter for The Independent newspaper, has been a harsh critic of NBC's Olympics coverage and that Twitter and NBC are partners in a Twitter site promoting the network's London Olympics coverage. 

Adams' Twitter account was reinstated on Tuesday, due to the "complainant retracting the original request," but the damage was done. In an article published following the return of his Twitter account, Adams wrote:

"For a company whose very raison d'etre is communication, Twitter seems remarkably reluctant to talk. I've been trying, for 24 hours now, to speak with an employee about their decision to suspend my account. But they won't return e-mails or calls.

"I'd like to ask, for example, how exactly I am supposed to have broken their "privacy policy." Not least because that policy states that: 'If information was previously posted or displayed elsewhere on the Internet prior to being put on Twitter, it is not a violation.'"

Whether Zenkel's e-mail address was private or public is a bit fuzzy. Search guru Danny Sullivan contends that the address was not widely available, and therefore supports Twitter's suspension for a rule violation. On the other hand, Zenkel's NBC e-mail address was previously published online and not difficult to surface through a search engine.

But wait, it gets more complicated and less transparent. It was presumed that NBC got fed up with Adams and alerted Twitter to the violation of its terms of service in a tweet. For what became a public incident and subject of debate, Twitter was mostly silent on the matter for 48 hours.

On Monday, Twitter spokespeople said the company cannot comment on individual accounts. An NBC spokesperson stated, "We filed a complaint with Twitter because a user tweeted the personal information of one of our executives. According to Twitter, this is a violation of their privacy policy. Twitter alone levies discipline." 

The Daily Telegraph added another wrinkle to the story today, reporting that Christopher McCloskey, NBC Sports vice president of communications, said that NBC's social media department was first alerted by Twitter about Adams' tweet and then filled out and submitted the proper form. 

Twitter has a policy that it is not in the business of proactively monitoring and flagging content.

For reference, in some other high-profile incidents that appeared to violate Twitter's policy, accounts were not suspended. In 2010, Justin Bieber tweeted the phone number of someone who was not among his friends to his millions of followers. His account was not suspended. Perhaps nobody filed a complaint.

This afternoon, Alex McGillivray, Twitter's general counsel, finally published a response to the Adams incident, acknowledging that Twitter employees working with NBC on the Olympics partnership did flag the Adams tweet with Zenkel's e-mail address and encouraged NBC to report a violation to Twitter authorities:

That said, we want to apologize for the part of this story that we did mess up. The team working closely with NBC around our Olympics partnership did proactively identify a Tweet that was in violation of the Twitter Rules and encouraged them to file a support ticket with our Trust and Safety team to report the violation, as has now been reported publicly. Our Trust and Safety team did not know that part of the story and acted on the report as they would any other.

As I stated earlier, we do not proactively report or remove content on behalf of other users no matter who they are. This behavior is not acceptable and undermines the trust our users have in us. 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. 

On the issue of whether Zenkel's e-mail address was public or private information, McGillivary wrote:

There are many individuals who may use their work email address for a variety of personal reasons -- and they 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.

Now Adams is free to tweet as long as he remains within the bounds of Twitter's terms of service, just like the rest of Twitter's estimated 500-plus million users, if they can figure out more precisely what those rules entail and whether they can break through Twitter's wall of silence. There is an upside for Adams. In the few hours since his Twitter account has been turned back on, he has added more than 10,000 followers. 

Twitter CEO Dick Costolo need not worry that his users will abandon the service or mount protests over the Adams incident. They just won't trust Twitter as much.