The Guy Adams Case Demonstrates Twitter's Need for an Appeals Process
UPDATE: Twitter has issued an apology to Guy Adams and clarified that they did "mess up" by notifying NBC about the tweet. They do, however, continue to claim that the tweet in question violated their Rules despite a sentence that states: "If information was previously posted or displayed elsewhere on the Internet prior to being put on Twitter, it is not a violation of this policy." The NBC executive's email was published online more than a year ago here.
Among the popular social networking sites, Twitter has often stood out for its stance on free speech. The company has stood up for its users in court, has pontificated on its role in protecting users' right to speak freely, and has even dubbed itself "the free speech wing of the free speech party." That is why, when British journalist Guy Adams' account was suspended after he tweeted the public e-mail address of an NBC executive, we were shocked.
According to Adams, his account was suspended for violating the Twitter Rules; specifically, he was informed that tweeting an e-mail address was in violation of those guidelines. A section of the platform's "help center" specifically states:
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
Keep in mind that although you may consider certain information to be private, not all postings of such information may be a violation of this policy. If information was previously posted or displayed elsewhere on the Internet prior to being put on Twitter, it is not a violation of this policy.*
In this case, the e-mail address in question—that of NBC Executive Gary Zenkel—was his corporate address, and has been published online for more than a year. Furthermore, NBC's firstname.lastname@example.org email address pattern can easily be found via a quick Google search. It therefore seems clear that Adams was not, in fact, in violation of the Twitter Rules. Complicating the matter, Adams' tweets were aimed at mocking NBC, which Twitter has partnered with for the Olympics. Worse yet, an NBC Executive claimed that employees from Twitter had contacted NBC's social media department to let them know about the tweet and how to report them.
The good news is that, this morning, Adams' account was reinstated. The reasoning provided by Twitter, however, is still problematic. Adams reported receiving the following message from the company:
Per our previous correspondence, your account was suspended because a complaint was filed stating that you had violated our Terms of Service regarding the posting of private information (such as a non-public email address), as stated in our Guidelines & Best Practices (https://twitter.com/rules). We have just received an updated notice from the complainant retracting the original request. Therefore, your account has been unsuspended, and no further action is required from you at this time.
It seems that after ample media coverage, NBC changed its mind and revoked their complaint. Though Twitter won't comment on specific cases, it's apparent from their message to Adams that the company still believes he broke the rules.
This is why Twitter needs an appeals system.
Companies make mistakes. Companies also have the right to create whatever rules they desire, but they also have the responsibility to be clear about those rules and, as we argued last year in a paper co-written with the Center for Democracy and Technology and the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, create clear processes and channels of communications with users.
Twitter has not done that.
On the other hand, YouTube (for example), offers a clear appeals process for users whose content has been removed, explained in detail here. Facebook, which just over a year ago would send banned users a message notifying them that "[this] decision is final and cannot be appealed," now offers an easy-to-use appeals form for users whose accounts have been deactivated (note: you must be logged out to access the form). Twitter, on the other hand, allows users to reply to notification e-mails, but typically responds with repeat automated e-mails. As Adams—a prominent journalist—noted, the company would not return his calls or e-mails.
Twitter is indeed a smaller company than Google or Facebook, but with more than 500 million users, it is imperative that they open up the lines of communication and reassure their users that they have a means of arbitration, when needed.