Yes, Twitter Banning a Journalist for Heckling NBC Really Was That Bad

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A misstep reveals that the company doesn't understand its outsized role in the media ecosystem.

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Update: Twitter's general counsel, Alex Macgillivray released a blog post explaining Twitter's policy and apologizing for Twitter's active content-policing role in what happened with Guy Adams. It should be said that Macgillivray's blog post is decently transparent about the affair, but I think the notion of One Privacy Policy to Rule Them All doesn't make sense. He writes:

We've seen a lot of commentary about whether we should have considered a corporate email address to be private information. There are many individuals who may use their work email address for a variety of personal reasons -- and they may not. Our Trust and Safety team does not have insight into the use of every user's email address, and we need a policy that we can implement across all of our users in every instance.

This is essentially abandoning any idea of nuance or reason in hopes of making this customer service process more efficient. I just don't think Twitter can make these kinds of blanket decisions and I'd bet that they *already* do not function that way in reality. This type of dispute will require judgment and judgment requires not just policy but trained and even wise people. But don't take my word for it, Twitter, just look at what happened this week!  Let's stipulate that Twitter banning journalist Guy Adams for posting NBC executive's Gary Zenkel's corporate email address was a very bad idea. They have begun fixing the damage they did by reinstating his account. NBC retracted its complaint, according to Adams.

Ok.

Now, whether it was a craven decision or merely bad judgment comes down to whether Zenkel's NBC email address is public or private information. In today's world, this is not as obvious a question as it might appear. (It may help to imagine that you are Gary Zenkel and you are the one getting hundreds of nastygrams from people with axes to grind.)

On the one hand, as Adams himself has pointed out, anyone with the Google can find it and it is now available on thousands of web pages, though not nearly as widely before. Not to mention, it's of the exact form as everyone else at NBC Universal, simply FirstName.LastName@nbcuni.com.

On the other hand, many people's home addresses, for example, are available on the Internet in some form, but tweeting them would be considered a rightly bannable offense by Twitter. In fact, Twitter has long had an operating practice that tweeting certain types of information, if a complaint was filed, could get you banned. This kind of dispute is something that Twitter has to resolve each and every day between all kinds of people from high schoolers to a journalist and NBC.

So, imagine you're Twitter and you deal with situations like this every day. You would almost undoubtedly have to develop a sense of public and private that were nuanced. Tweeting some kinds of phone numbers might be, but others wouldn't. Tweeting a Facebook page might not be, but a location of an individual might be.

The easy answer is that if something is public on the Internet in any way, it is public on the Internet in every way. But that's not really true and people don't really behave that way. The context of a fact matters a lot, something that almost everyone recognizes intuitively.

Helen Nissenbaum's work on "contextual integrity" has laid all of this out clearly. As I've glossed it before, here's Nissenbaum's basic idea:

In her scheme, there are senders and receivers of messages, who communicate different types of information with very specific expectations of how it will be used. Privacy violations occur not when too much data accumulates or people can't direct it, but when one of the receivers or transmission principles change. The key academic term is "context-relative informational norms."
Noting the context in this case, however, actually makes Twitter's behavior more damning. The NBC executive's email was distributed as a direct result of and in the context of his work. Adams requested that people contact him about the work that he'd done for NBC Universal and gave a work address. There is not actually a privacy violation, at least on my initial inspection. Even if Gary Zenkel did not expect his email address to get passed around Twitter, he could reasonably expect that his email address could be used by consumers of NBC entertainment to contact him about NBC entertainment-related business.

This is quite different, say, from tweeting Zenkel's home address because reasonable people do not expect that angry customers should be generally welcomed at the homes of business associates. That information exists within a different context. You can't just show up at your dry cleaning guy's apartment because he messed up your pants. You can't knock down a fellow blogger's door because she didn't link to your story. And you can't go stand on Gary Zenkel's front lawn and shout at him about the Olympics.

Twitter can't hide behind a policy here because we know that individuals are making these decisions and that they are capable of understanding the nuances involved. They knew the email address was publicly available and a business address. They knew they were banning a journalist. And they did it anyway.

Of course, the other key piece of context is that NBC and Twitter are also business partners. This almost certainly played a role in this affair, if only in the speed with which Adams was dispatched. For themselves, NBC and Twitter should have known how bad it would make Twitter and NBC *look* to ban Guy Adams. For the world, they should have known how bad it *was* to ban Guy Adams.

As an information conduit, Twitter has gotten too big to pretend that it can ban journalists who are critics of its business partners for borderline infractions. That kind of ill-considered move, even under the cover of a nuanced/opaque/wiggleroomy policy, does not square with Twitter's current position in our news ecosystem.

In other words: You're a real part of what it means to have free speech now, Twitter, and you better start acting like it. You've scaled your servers, now it's time to scale your policies.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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