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Twitter's Olympic-sized blunder

July 31, 2012|By Jon Healey
  • A screen shot of the special tweet page for the Olympics developed by Twitter in partnership with NBCUniversal.
A screen shot of the special tweet page for the Olympics developed by Twitter… (Twitter.com )

If a gymnast flubs spectacularly on a routine but sticks the landing, which makes a more lasting impression on the audience: the mistakes or the graceful finish?

The former seems more likely, but Twitter is hoping for the latter. The popular microblogging service flubbed spectacularly this week when it suspended the account of Guy Adams, a sharp critic of NBCUniversal's coverage of the Olympic Games. This was unseemly on its face, considering that Twitter had partnered with NBCUniversal on a special "insiders" stream of Olympics-related tweets.

On Tuesday, Twitter restored Adams' account and aired its dirty laundry in a welcome display of transparency. If only Twitter had been the first to disclose how it had mishandled the affair, it might bask in the warm glow of forgiveness. Instead, it wound up looking like yet another company that puts commercial interests ahead of its customers.

Guide to the London Olympics: Can't-miss moments

Adams is the Los Angeles correspondent for the Independent, a London-based tabloid. Starting July 26, he wrote a stream of tweets savaging NBC's Olympics coverage, particularly its unwillingness to air events live or acknowledge that some of its tape-delayed coverage was, in fact, tape delayed. On July 27 he urged followers to complain to "[t]he man responsible for NBC pretending the Olympics haven't started yet," NBCUniversal Executive Vice President Gary Zenkel; that missive, which was retweeted more than 150 times, included Zenkel's corporate email address.

By Sunday the 29th, Adams' account had been suspended, and the Interwebs began crying foul. NBC acknowledged that it had complained to Twitter about the publication of Zenkel's email, which appeared to violate a rule against tweeting private personal information. (Although a corporate email may not seem as personal as, say, a Gmail address, NBC did not publish Zenkel's.) But Zenkel's address was easy enough to guess, and had already appeared elsewhere on the Net.

Things got worse for Twitter early Tuesday morning when one of the Independent's competitors, the London-based Telegraph, reported that Twitter had brought Adams' offending tweet to NBC's attention. Alex Macgillivray, Twitter's general counsel, confirmed the Independent's report later that day in a blog post that explained the company's actions and announced the restoration of Adams' account.

Macgillivray outlined why Adams' actions constituted a violation of Twitter rules:

"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 some 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."

But then he went on to apologize for "the part of the story that we did mess up," noting how the Twitter employees who were working closely with NBC on the Olympics tweet stream urged the broadcaster to file its complaint:

"[W]e do not proactively report or remove content on behalf of other users no matter who they are. This behavior is not acceptable and undermines the trust our users have in us. 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. As of earlier today, the account has been unsuspended, and we will actively work to ensure this does not happen again."

That, in a nutshell, is how Twitter's business model threatens its ambition to be the go-to online companion for major events such as the Olympics. Twitter's partners in these endeavors have a natural interest in presenting tweets that best serve their corporate ends. But if Twitter's users don't trust Twitter to be a content-neutral platform provider, they'll find another way to tap into the swirl of content being generated by those involved in life's big moments.

In addition, the specter of Twitter monitoring tweets is disturbing. Granted, tweets are public expressions. But just as people don't expect their movements to be tracked on public streets, they don't expect the company providing their microblogging platform to be looking over the shoulders at everything they write.

It's worth noting that Adams' tweets weren't part of the Twitter-NBC Olympics stream. But given what happened to him, you have to wonder why this tweet by Eric LeGrand (a defensive tackle for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers) found its way in Tuesday afternoon: "Love watching these Olympics even if we found out what happened earlier." Even if the tweets are chosen purely by software algorithms, Twitter's handling of the Adams affair make it easier to question its credentials as an honest broker.

Twitter has a massive amount of goodwill in the bank, helped by its previous efforts to preserve user privacy in the face of government subpoenas. The Adams controversy will blow over, assuming it's a one-time event. Macgillivray's post makes that promise, now it's up to Twitter to keep it. 

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