Once again, we're reminded of a maxim when it comes to publishing on other people's platforms: we publish at their sufferance. But there's a corollary: When they take down what we publish, they take an enormous risk with their own futures.
This time, Twitter has suspended the account of a British journalist who tweeted the corporate email address of an NBC executive. The reporter, Guy Adams of the Independent, has been acerbic in his criticisms of NBC's (awful) performance during the Olympics in London.
Adams has posted his correspondence with Twitter, which claims he published a private email address. It was nothing of the kind, as many, including the Deadspin sports blog, have pointed out. (Here's the policy, which Adams plainly did not violate, since the NBC executive's email address was already easily discernible on the web — NBC has a firstname.lastname@ system for its email, and it's a corporate address, not a personal one — and was published online over a year ago.)
What makes this a serious issue is that Twitter has partnered with NBC during the Olympics. And it was NBC's complaint about Adams that led to the suspension. That alone raises reasonable suspicions about Twitter's motives.
Now, Twitter has been exemplary in its handling of many issues over the past several years, including its (for a social network) brave stance in protecting user privacy; for example, it has contested warrantless government fishing expeditions. So I'm giving the service the benefit of the doubt for the moment, and hoping that this is just a foolish — if possibly well-meaning — mistake by a single quick-triggered Twitter employee. If so, Twitter should apologize and reinstate Adams' account immediately. If it does so, there's little harm done — and the company will have learned a lesson.
If not, this is a defining moment for Twitter. It will have demonstrated that it can be bullied by its business partners into acts that damage its credibility and ultimately the reason so many of us use it as a platform. And if that's the case, there will be much less incentive to use it.
One of the great ironies in Monday's events is that the corporate address of the NBC executive, Gary Zenkel, has now spread widely around the internet. This is the so-called Streisand effect, a term that arose when singer Barbra Streisand tried to suppress aerial photos of her mega-mansion on the California coastline north of Los Angeles. Her arrogance led to the widespread dissemination of the pictures, and continuing ridicule.
But the most important reminder for all of us who don't own technology mega-platforms is that we don't control them. Their owners do. Twitter's mistake in this case comes at a non-trivial cost to Adams and his employer. They have lost – temporarily, one hopes – an important method of bringing people to the journalism they produce about the biggest London event in a long time. And until Twitter reverses itself, it's telling its users they live or die on its servers at the whims of others.