Twitter Draws Scorn After Blocking Writer Critical of NBC

NBC Olympics President Gary Zenkel, announcing plans this month to work with Twitter Inc. on coverage of the games, said the “conversation on Twitter will rage” around athletes and competition in London.

Much of the rage yesterday centered on the partnership.

Twitter drew criticism after blocking the account of U.K. journalist Guy Adams, who had posted Zenkel’s work e-mail address while complaining about the network’s coverage. Following the outcry, Twitter restored Adams’s account today.

Critics said that by initially blocking Adams’s account, Twitter put the partnership with NBC ahead of its goal of disseminating information. Adams had posted an e-mail address that he deemed to be public and widely available. Twitter should admit that it made a mistake, said Jeff Jarvis, a professor at City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism.

“Twitter has a business relationship with NBC,” said Jarvis, who wrote “Public Parts: How Sharing in the Digital Age Improves the Way We Work and Live.” “If Twitter acts in a way to favor that business relationship over the freedom of its platform for its users, then Twitter risks losing the trust of those users.”

The decision to block his account came after NBC complained that Adams, who writes for the Independent, had violated Twitter’s privacy policy. Christopher McCloskey, a spokesman for NBC Sports, told the Telegraph newspaper it was Twitter that initially alerted NBC to Adams’s tweet. NBC then filled out an online form to complain and submitted it to Twitter.

No Apology

Adams said today Twitter told him his account was restored because the complainant retracted its original request. No further explanation or apology was given, he said.

After Adams returned to Twitter, NBC said it hadn’t realized that its complaint would lead to his suspension.

“Our interest was in protecting our executive, not suspending the user from Twitter,” NBC Sports, a division of Comcast Corp.’s NBCUniversal, said in a statement. “We didn’t initially understand the repercussions of our complaint, but now that we do, we have rescinded it.”

NBC declined to elaborate on McCloskey’s remarks while reiterating that it was Twitter’s decision to block Adams.

‘Twitter Alone’

“We filed a complaint with Twitter because a user tweeted the personal information of one of our executives,” the network said. “Twitter alone levies discipline.”

Carolyn Penner, a spokeswoman for San Francisco-based Twitter, said her company doesn’t comment on individual accounts for privacy reasons.

Twitter users expressed dismay over the decision using tweets accompanied by the hashtag #twitterfail. The social network’s users rely on hashtags, marked with a pound symbol, to make it easier to find posts on the same topic.

Twitter says on its website that posting “non-public, personal e-mail addresses” are examples of private and confidential information. It doesn’t specify whether work e-mails are public or non-public.

Adams had criticized NBC in a number of tweets for its policy of tape-delaying major Olympic events and the opening ceremonies so that it could air the programming during prime time. Live events are available for cable subscribers online.

‘Dangerous Policy’

Adams hasn’t heard from NBC and would have removed the tweet if NBC had contacted him directly and explained to him why the network wanted the executive’s work e-mail removed, he said in an interview.

“I don’t think I have done anything wrong, and I don’t think any reasonable person would think I’ve done something wrong,” Adams said. “If it’s standard practice to be immediately suspended after someone complains, it’s a dangerous policy. I’m surprised because I always thought Twitter was a company dedicated to the flow of information.”

The primary issue for Twitter users is the vague definition of “non-public” and “personal,” Woody Hartzog, a cyber-law expert and assistant professor at the Cumberland School of Law at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, said in an interview.

“The law generally has not answered these questions about privacy, and I’m guessing most Twitter users don’t know either,” Hartzog said. “Greater clarity is needed.”

Adams’s comment that included Zenkel’s e-mail address was retweeted many times, meaning it was posted on other users’ Twitter feeds.

Twitter could have handled the situation better by asking Adams to remove the posting with the e-mail, instead of shutting down the entire account, said Michael Gartenberg, an analyst at Stamford, Connecticut-based Gartner Inc.

“Someone at Twitter should have looked at this in the larger context because it probably could have been resolved with a single phone call or with a single e-mail,” Gartenberg said. “Instead it became this mini-tempest in a teapot when there was really no reason for it to be anything other than, ‘You’ve stepped over a guideline of using Twitter. Please step back over the line and everyone will be happy.’”

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