Freedom Of Speech Doesn’t Exist On Twitter (Or Any Social Network)

A prominent journalist had his Twitter account suspended for tweeting the email address of an NBC executive. This shouldn’t shock you.

It’s easy to think that “freedom of speech” means you can say anything you want. You can’t. It’s just as easy to think that “freedom of speech,” to the extent that it exists, applies to social media like Twitter and Facebook. It doesn’t. There are rules. And sometimes they’re applied in seemingly capricious ways. Which is what The Independent correspondent Guy Adams found out when he tweeted the email address of Gary Zenkel, the President of NBC Olympics, while lambasting the network’s poor handling of its coverage:

Adams’ Twitter account was suspended after NBC, who has an official partnership with Twitter for the Olympics, filed a complaint with Twitter. Cue outrage, and statements like “NBC banned Guy Adams from Twitter.”

The truth is that Twitter suspended Adams’ account because he broke Twitter’s rules, in particular its rules about “private information posted on Twitter,” and was reported for it:

Posting another person’s private and confidential information is a violation of the Twitter Rules.

Some examples of private and confidential information are:

credit card information
social security or other national identity numbers
addresses or locations that are considered and treated as private
non-public, personal phone numbers
non-public, personal email addresses

What’s at issue, in part, is that Twitter considers Zenkel’s email address to be non-public because it wasn’t very easily Googleable. This is dumb, yes: His email address was fairly Googleable; every email address at NBC Universal follows the same format or firstname.lastname@nbcuni.com; and you and I would not consider the email address of a high-ranking NBC executive to be private.

From what I understand, though, Twitter maintains that NBC didn’t receive special treatment because of its Olympics partnership. Not any specialer than anybody else who knows somebody who works at Twitter, anyway, like the NYT in the midst of the fake Bill Keller thing over the weekend. NBC filed a ticket — even Barack Obama would have to file a ticket — and then followed up on it to make sure it got flagged and dealt with, albeit faster than a mere mortal’s complaint. Voila, Adams was suspended, though it seems clear now that the request got less scrutiny than should’ve been applied. (That said, it’s hard for Twitter to avoid the appearance of NBC receiving special treatment. 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 Zenkel’s email address. So either Bieber got special treatment, or NBC did.)

Update: Well! It seems like Twitter told NBC about Guy Adams’ tweet and how to file a ticket about it, at least according to NBC. Which would undermine that whole preceding paragraph. I asked Twitter for comment, will publish if and when I get it.

Whether Twitter was right or not to suspend Adams — it seems like it boned the handling of this pretty hard — the whole thing raises issues that are more pertinent to Twitter than any other social media or web service precisely because Twitter fights so hard to be seen as the service that embodies free speech and user rights. It’s easy to think Freedom of Speech exists on Twitter in part because Twitter cultivates that belief. For instance, while Facebook busily takes down photos of breastfeeding, Twitter on the other hand permits cockshots, although it’d really like you to designate them as “sensitive media.” 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. (Especially if, as NBC now says, Twitter told NBC about Adams’ tweets. Talk about major trust issues now.)

And there is nothing muddier in its short list of rules about “content boundaries” than its ban on tweeting a “person’s private and confidential information,” the rule Adams was busted for breaking. If I tweeted somebody’s very private medical condition that only their doctor knew — they have herpes! — why does that not violate this edict of not posting private information? Or does it? It’s not on the list, but it seems quite private. If I can tell the world you have herpes, according to Twitter, why can’t I tweet the fairly public email address of high-ranking corporate executive? It seems gross.

Not that it matters in the end, I suppose. Twitter’s a private company, and it’s silly to expect speech to be totally free on any form of communication that’s got a ™ or © after its name.

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