Something of a controversy has arisen on Twitter after the account of Guy Adams — Los Angeles bureau chief for The Independent — was suspended following a string of tweets criticizing NBC's television coverage of the Olympics. Adams' displeasure certainly isn't unique, nor is his choice of a platform from which to voice his complaints: viewers have made their frustrations known via Twitter over the last several days, with variations of #NBCfail and #NBCsucks soaring to the top of the service's trending topics as a result. Yet Twitter's suspension of this one account (paired with its cozy relationship with NBC during these London games) has drawn a swell of criticism. But as it turns out, Twitter's terms of service give it the right to take action against Adams — an uncomfortable reminder that even the most popular social media platforms are under private authority.
Amidst his slew of tweets slamming NBC's telecast, Guy Adams included the corporate (but private) email address of Gary Zenkel — the executive in charge of Olympics programming at NBC.
"The man responsible for NBC pretending the Olympics haven't started yet is Gary Zenkel. Tell him what u think! Email: email@example.com" [Editorial note: we've omitted Mr. Zenkel's contact information for obvious reasons.]
That's a clear violation of Twitter's policies against posting private user information, which are detailed in straightforward verbiage here. Among the data Twitter forbids from being posted in a public tweet? Non-public, personal email addresses. Gary Zenkel's email address is not listed anywhere on his biography located at the NBC Sports website. Nor can it be found on that network's contacts page. To get around this, Adams could've easily used the email address formatting shared by public-facing NBC Universal employees (i.e. the company's PR team) and filled in Zenkel's name.
If you need more proof that NBC doesn't want angry cable viewers emailing one of their high-level executives, look no further than this official statement from the Sports division:
RT @ProducerMatthew: NBC Sports statement: "We filed a complaint with Twitter because a user tweeted the personal information of one of...— Tim Carmody (@tcarmody) July 30, 2012
Adams may have avoided Twitter's wrath by instead tweeting the email address of one Adam Freifeld (firstname.lastname@example.org), Vice President of Communications at NBC Sports, who includes the 2012 London Olympics among his projects and whose contact information is freely available on the network's homepage.
But what if Adams had chosen to echo his original complaints elsewhere on the web? It's doubtful he would have fared much better. Facebook enforces a similar (but even more vague) policy, for instance: "You will not post content or take any action on Facebook that infringes or violates someone else's rights or otherwise violates the law," reads section 5 of the site's legal terms. The company can apply that policy to virtually any scenario it deems appropriate, and posting a private email address could easily qualify.
Still, as tantalizing as these "censorship" controversies can often be, this one isn't hard to follow. Twitter has rules, and Guy Adams happened to violate one of them. There's a case to be made, though, that social media is just as powerful a tool for corporate censorship as it is a force for citizens and consumers to stand together. Twitter's policies are unlikely to impede someone like Guy Adams, who can take to the pages of The Independent to voice his opinion. But for everyone else, it's a worrisome prospect indeed.