Tuned In

When Twitter Becomes the Tweet Police

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It was — to paraphrase Twitter’s own terminology for when it crashes — a whale of a fail. The social-media service, and NBC, apologized for the suspension of a British reporter, critical of NBC’s Olympics coverage, who tweeted the e-mail of an NBC executive to his followers.

Twitter reinstated the reporter, Guy Adams of the Independent, but how the suspension happened is as important and disturbing as the fact that it happened. Twitter has a business partnership with NBC on the Olympics, and Twitter staff alerted NBC to the tweet — believing it violated a Twitter rule against tweeting private e-mail addresses — and encouraged the network to file a complaint.

It’s a little mind-boggling that Twitter wouldn’t anticipate how fast controversies over speech and silencing can spread on, well, Twitter. There was a burst of support for Adams — and whatever you think of the whole “Here’s this guy’s e-mail address. Tell him off, folks!” strategy, the appearance that NBC and Twitter teamed up to shut up a critic didn’t look good for a pair of media companies.

One question is whether Adams really violated Twitter’s stated rule in the first place. The “private” e-mail address he tweeted was a corporate one, in the same firstname-lastname-at-corporate-domain-dot-com format that other addresses at NBC (or for that matter, TIME) follow.

In an apology post, Twitter said it stood by the “private” judgment, since it can’t know or investigate whether someone uses an address for personal or public business. Though that raises the question of whether Twitter therefore considers every e-mail address private. Also, other users (like Spike Lee, who apologized for retweeting the wrong person’s address in protest over the Trayvon Martin shooting) have not been suspended over tweets of others’ personal information. But Twitter did recognize that tipping off a business partner to file a complaint was a conflict: “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.”

The incident itself is a small one in the grand history of public speech. And before anyone brings it up, this isn’t a matter of violating rights — Twitter is a private company that has every right to set rules for behavior and suspend users who violate them. (Whether Adams actually did in this case is another matter.)

But there’s what’s legal and there’s what’s responsible. And while this was one small incident, it points out the tremendous power that Twitter potentially has over users in social media. There are other outlets like Facebook and Google Plus, but only one Twitter. If AT&T were to cancel your cell-phone contract, you could switch to Verizon and still be able to make calls just the same. But if you’re suspended from Twitter, you’re just gone. There’s no alternate Twitter you can go on to reach the same people.

Here the issue was just griping over the Olympics, but Twitter has been used for much more serious and controversial purposes, including protests in the Arab Spring. If there’s even the suggestion that Twitter might choose to enforce its standards more assiduously for people who criticize its business partners, what happens when the growing company develops business interests in, say, a country whose government is under protest?

Twitter did the right thing to reverse itself and apologize, and it’s also the right thing to keep an eye on it to make sure it keeps doing the right thing. As go the Olympics, after all, so goes the world.