Twitter has long had a reputation for standing up for users' rights. Last year, the company distinguished itself by going to court to challenge a subpoena for information about account holders who appeared to have ties to Wikileaks. The company also drew praise from digital rights advocates for appealing a court order requiring it to disclose data about Occupy Wall Street protester Malcolm Harris' account.
But today, the microblogging site is under fire by free speech advocates. That's because Twitter suspended the account of journalist Guy Adams, the Los Angeles bureau chief for The Independent, who forcefully criticized NBC's decision to delay broadcasts of the Olympics.
"While Kobe Bryant and other big names in US sport were completing a 98 to 71-point victory, viewers of American network NBC were forced to watch edited highlights of a women's cycling race that had been completed several hours earlier," Adams wrote this weekend in The Independent.
He also took NBC to task on Twitter. "Am I alone in wondering why NBC thinks (it's) acceptable to pretend this roadrace is being broadcast live?" he wondered in one tweet.
Another said, "America's left coast forced to watch Olympic ceremony on SIX HOUR time delay. Disgusting money-grabbing by @NBColympics."
Yet another tweet read: "The man responsible for NBC pretending the Olympics haven't started yet is Gary Zenkel. Tell him what u think!"
That tweet included Zenkel's corporate email address, which prompted NBC to complain that Adams violated the microblogging service's policy against tweeting "private" information.
Twitter responded by suspending Adams for posting Zenkel's email address -- even though it could be found on Google before Adams tweeted it, and could be deduced by anyone familiar with NBC's pattern of assigning email addresses to employees.
Adams denies that he violated Twitter's terms of service. "I'm of course happy to abide by Twitter's rules, now and forever," he wrote to a Twitter representative. "But I don't see how I broke them in this case: I didn't publish a private email address. Just a corporate one, which is widely available to anyone with access to Google, and is identical [in form] to one that all of the tens of thousands of NBC Universal employees share."
Twitter has yet to publicly respond to Adams. As of Monday evening, the site had not restored Adams' account.
It's certainly possible that Twitter was merely following standard operating procedure by suspending a user who tweeted a supposedly "private" email address. But it also seems possible that the company's judgment was clouded by the desire to placate NBC, its official Olympics partner.
Meantime, the move has sparked some high-profile pushback. Reuters journalist Chadwick Matlin urged Twitter users upset about the decision banning Adams to email NBC's CEO Steve Burke, and included an apparent email address for him, along with the hashtag #comeandgetmetwitter.
If nothing else, Twitter's ban has cost the company some of the goodwill it gained from standing up to the government on behalf of users. Hopefully, the company will realize that tweeting a top corporate official's work email address isn't the same as exposing someone's private data.