Guy Adams suspension, now lifted, punctuates Twitter censorship evolution

By now you know the story of Guy Adams -- the British journalist for The Independent whose Twitter account was suspended after he torrentially criticized NBC's Olympics coverage and tweeted an executive's email address.

Adams' Twitter account was reinstated Tuesday afternoon, after NBC retracted its request to suspend him. The reversal may help NBC regain some good will, but it still raises questions about Twitter and its evolution.

Not only does this particular event smack of heavy-handed special treatment since NBC is Twitter's corporate partner in covering the Olympics, but it marks the latest milestone in Twitter's eroding commitment to free speech and keeping its hands off your tweets.

Jan. 28, 2011: "The tweets must flow"

The story begins with this company blog post boasting "The Tweets Must Flow," in which Twitter co-founder Biz Stone and General Counsel Alex Macgillivray declared "a practical and ethical belief" in the free flow of information (emphasis added):

Freedom of expression is essential. Some Tweets may facilitate positive change in a repressed country, some make us laugh, some make us think, some downright anger a vast majority of users. We don't always agree with the things people choose to tweet, but we keep the information flowing irrespective of any view we may have about the content.

The open exchange of information can have a positive global impact. This is both a practical and ethical belief. On a practical level, we simply cannot review all one hundred million-plus Tweets created and subsequently delivered every day. From an ethical perspective, almost every country in the world agrees that freedom of expression is a human right. Many countries also agree that freedom of expression carries with it responsibilities and has limits.

At Twitter, we have identified our own responsibilities and limits. There are Tweets that we do remove, such as illegal Tweets and spam. However, we make efforts to keep these exceptions narrow so they may serve to prove a broader and more important rule -- we strive not to remove Tweets on the basis of their content.

That same blog post encouraged readers to follow a special "Freedom of Expression" Twitter list. Today, some of the 22 Twitter accounts on that list are critical of the company's latest actions.

Jan. 26, 2012: "Tweets still must flow," but...

A year later, Twitter hedged that proclamation. Citing international growth, the company said it would begin to censor certain tweets in certain countries subject to each nation's regulations.

As we continue to grow internationally, we will enter countries that have different ideas about the contours of freedom of expression...

Until now, the only way we could take account of those countries’ limits was to remove content globally. Starting today, we give ourselves the ability to reactively withhold content from users in a specific country -- while keeping it available in the rest of the world...

One of our core values as a company is to defend and respect each user’s voice. We try to keep content up wherever and whenever we can, and we will be transparent with users when we can't.

July 29-31, 2012: The tweets must not target our friends

NBC vice president for communications Chris McCloskey said someone at Twitter flagged Adams' critical tweets and reached out to NBC staff, who then filed a formal complaint so Twitter could promptly suspend Adams' account indefinitely.

In a year and a half, we've seen Twitter shift from "we strive not to remove tweets," to "we give ourselves the ability to reactively withhold content from users in a specific country," to now proactively reviewing content and suggesting to a corporate partner that they (wink, wink) might want to file a complaint so the company can suspend a critic's account.

As Twitter has grown, it has naturally come into more contact with governments, advertisers and corporate partners. It has occasionally stood up to them. But users are right to be concerned about whether Twitter Inc. now values those relationships more than the freedom of individual users.

The bigger problem: Trust

A few months ago Spike Lee tweeted an actual home address he thought belonged to murder suspect George Zimmerman. He was wrong, and the elderly couple living there had to relocate out of fear for their safety. Lee's account was not suspended (he did apologize).

BuzzFeed writer Matt Buchanan notes that "Justin Bieber wasn't suspended for tweeting the number of Detroit teenager Kevin Kristopik to 4.5 million people -- delivering literally a thousand times more exposure to a teenager's phone number than Adams did to [NBC Olympics chief George] Zenkel's email address."

Buchanan goes on to adeptly explain the deeper problem Twitter has here -- inconsistency and hypocrisy:

It's easy to think Freedom of Speech exists on Twitter in part because Twitter cultivates that belief. ...Which is totally great. The flip side of that coin, though, is that every time Twitter breaks that expectation, or appears to act capriciously, it seems more profoundly wrong than when Facebook does something remotely similar.

So it is difficult for Twitter to have it both ways with online speech, more so than any other social network or service. It can't promote or imply the fact that it has freer speech than any other social network and then turn around and say, "BTW, there are Things That Cannot Be Tweeted" while imposing those rules in a way that seems arbitrary or ill-defined. It breaks trust.

Blogging pioneer (and strident Twitter critic) Dave Winer writes that this incident should prompt a gut-check for journalists using Twitter:

All this time the press has been acting as if Twitter were a public utility, when it is nothing like that. It's a service operated for free by a private company. They don't see it in any way as a public utility. They have good PR and have chosen a friendly logo, and they make jokes and they're nice guys. But they're running a business. And your writing is subject to their whims. And your recourse is nothing. Read the terms of service...

It's time for journalists to take a serious look at this and decide if they are really serious about journalism.

  • Profile picture for user jsonderman

    Jeff Sonderman

    Jeff Sonderman is the deputy director of the American Press Institute, helping to lead its use of research, tools, events, and strategic insights to advance and sustain journalism.


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