Twitter still has some ‘splainin’ to do

On 28 July, Twitter disappeared the account and writings of Independent journalist Guy Adams. Most corporate media reported that his Twitter account was “suspended.” But this was only half the tale. It wasn’t just that Adams was no longer allowed to publish his utterances (and at 140 characters, let’s face it folks, it’s all utterances) — the entire corpus of his Twitter work had been disappeared. A search for him revealed not so much as a trace, although Twitter not-so-helpfully provided a plethora of alternatives for our consideration.

Adams’s crime? The official position was that he published, in his own words, “a message critical of Gary Zenkel, the NBC executive in charge of the network’s awful coverage of the Olympics.” Adams also included Zenkel’s corporate email address and invited his Twitter followers to let Zenkel know what they thought. It’s not like Adams published, oh I don’t know, Zenkel’s home address or phone number.

That Twitter (the company) had recently gotten under the corporate sheets with NBC and started banging boots in a partnership to cover the Olympics didn’t make it past the smell test of many on the intertubes.

In the evening of 31 July in the UK — the timing’s a little wonky because the Independent is on a UK clock; it was mid-morning on 30 July here on this side of the pond — NBC spokesperson Christopher McCloskey informed another journalist, the Daily Telegraph‘s Amy Willis, that it was Twitter — not NBC — “that was responsible for initiating the complaint” that led to the disappearing of Adams’s accounts and tweets.

As Adams notes in his response to Twitter’s communication outlining the one true way by which his account and tweets could be made undisappeared on Twitter, NBC — like most organizations — uses a standard email address assignment scheme in order to make said email addresses easily discoverable. In the case of ARTS & FARCES it’s first initial last name. In the case of NBC it’s Not for nothing, as we’ll see in the very next graf, McCloskey’s email address had been published more than a year ago and was readily available to anyone via the Google.

Adams cited Twitter’s oh-so-sacred 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.” Wait. What? Twitter, as Adams blithely pointed out, was clearly making this up as it went along. Twitter was in violation of its own policy.

Lots and lots (and lots more) hand-wringing ensued on the internet but Dan Gillmor, writing for the Guardian, was the first to sum up the crux of the matter in his lede graf:

“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 is the same Twitter, Gillmor reminds us, that gallantly resisted “government fishing expeditions” for its users’ private data.

On 31 July, Adams reported that his Twitter account and past tweets had been undisappeared — a result of NBC retracting its complaint. Moments later, Alex Macgillivray, Twitter’s general counsel, published a sort of, kind of, but not really apology and undisappeared Adams’s account and tweets. You’ll note that Macgillivray apologizes only for proactively notifying its business partner, maintaining that everything else it did — including the disappearance of the account and tweets — was justified.

For quite some time a lot of folks who should know better have behaved as if Twitter were a public utility instead of the corporate-owned service it is. The takeaway from this series of events should be that if you’re a publisher, you need to own your own online publishing platform. At ARTS & FARCES we’re actively planning migrations from corporate-owned services to solutions we can host on our own servers. For example, our core web services run on ExpressionEngine, a commercial product, but we manage our own hosting. While we continue to purchase service from DropBox, we also run ownCloud and will eventually move to the latter exclusively. For galleries, we use Zenphoto running on one of our servers. As for Twitter, we’ve got StatusNet running on one of our servers, and hope to migrate to it eventually.

Nobody has been on top of this more than Dave Winer. His most recent attempt to explain this — “One foot on the platform…” — is among the best things he’s ever published. Using a single line of Lowell George’s “Rocket in My Pocket,” Winer sums up the situation most of us are facing: “She got one foot on the platform, the other on the train.” He goes on to explain it succinctly: “You can’t get off the platform, that’s where everyone is. But you need a Plan B, just in case you have to get off the platform. That’s the train.”

Meanwhile, Twitter still has some ‘splainin’ to do:

  1. How, exactly, did Adams’s original tweet that got his account and past tweets disappeared violate Twitter’s terms of service?
  2. What was the motivation, internal to Twitter, to disappear Adams’s account and past tweets>
  3. If Adams did, in fact, violate Twitter’s terms of service, why was his account undisappeared?
  4. Why has Twitter not enforced its terms of service in other cases?
  5. What specific measures have been implemented to keep this from happening again?
  6. Why has Twitter not implemented an appeals process for disappeared accounts?
  7. Is Twitter a publisher or a common carrier? Based on the Twitter general counsel’s non-apology, it would appear the company is backing away from any possible association with being a publisher. Fine; then back away from the disappeared button and act like a common carrier.
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