Twitter Ethics: The Guy Adams Affair

Twitter has come under fire from ignorant free speech advocates—essentially the same people who accuse me of “censorship” when I refuse to allow an anonymous comment, in violation of Ethics Alarms policies, on my own blog —because it removed a journalist Guy Adams’ account after he violated Twitter’s privacy rules by tweeting the email address of NBC executive Gary Zenkel over various Olympics coverage controversies. The main complaint is that apparently someone at Twitter notified Zenkel and alerted him to the process whereby he could get the tweet and the account taken down according to Twitter’s policies. Here is a representative reaction, from blogger Matt Honan at Wired:

 “Here’s an interesting thought experiment. Imagine that instead of going after an NBC executive, Adams’ target was a dictator. Imagine that Adams tweeted, say, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s email address, along with a call to action to protest his policies. Had Twitter worked back-channel with the Syrian government, showing it how to have Adams’ account taken down on a technicality, it would clearly be an indefensible act of censorship. Heads would roll.”

Heads might roll, but Honan is wrong. It would not be “an indefensible act of censorship.” It would not be censorship at all. The U.S. government is prevented from engaging in censorship by the First Amendment. Twitter is not the U.S. Government. Twitter can permit or not permit any content on its private and free service that it chooses, and it is not wrong for it to do so. Honan presumably would not think such “censorship”—-having an account cancelled for not following a private entity’s previously published rules is not censorship—was so unforgivable if he were in sympathy with the Syrian government: his “thought experiment” relies on bias for its persuasiveness, not logic or ethics. Whose message is taken down in relation to what private information is in the tweet is irrelevant to the question of whether Twitter was following its policies ethically.

It was. Twitter can have whatever policies it chooses to have for its service. It can only allow tweets that favor Democrats, astrology, the Houston Astros or the Syrian rebels. It can have loose policies, arbitrary policies, strict policies or no policies at all. There will be consequences of these choices, but that has nothing to do with Twitter’s right to run its service as it chooses, and the absence of the right of any user to tell Twitter what it can and can’t do. The specific choices Twitter makes within its discretion, including the content of its policies, can legitimately be critiqued on ethical grounds, but not its right to make those choices.

Unless Twitter had a policy that specifically says that an individual whose privacy has been violated must discover so and file a complaint without any tips from Twitter staff, and it didn’t, then there was nothing scandalous–or unethical— about Twitter bringing Adams’ tweet to Zenkel’s attention. I think that was an ethical act, a Golden Rule act. I’d want Twitter to do that for me. Wouldn’t you? I’ll listen to arguments that loyalty dictates that Twitter shouldn’t favor non-Twitter users over Twitter users, but that’s a matter for debate. Fairness and compassion suggest otherwise.

Twitter has ethical obligations like any other business or service. It should be honest to its customers, and give reliable service. It should be fair, which only means, in this case, being clear about its standards, and consistent in its adherence to them. Otherwise, Twitter’s  conduct and policies are entirely up to Twitter, and they will either cause more people to use its services, or fewer.

A business or service should have integrity, which means that its conduct should be reliable and based on clearly articulated  policies, standards, precedents and guidelines. When a service knows that its users rely on it and its manner of operation, it is a breach of integrity—unethical—to betray that reliance with shoddy service or unpredictable conduct. I don’t see that in the Adams affair. What I see is Twitter users holding the service to a standard of conduct that its policies didn’t suggest or require.

After the flap, Twitter made the business decision to apologize for being proactive on the Adams tweet, and now has a published policy on the record that it will not alert those whose privacy may have been violated. That is also Twitter’s choice. It could just as validly have said, “We will alert individuals or organizations that have had their privacy violated by a user when we think it is justified and prudent under the circumstances.” That would also be an ethical policy. Understandably, Twitter decided that yielding to its market was a wiser course. That does not mean, however, that it was wrong and the complainers were right.


Spark: Ken at Popehat

Facts: Wired

Source: Twitter Blog

Graphic: That Tech Chick

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at

5 thoughts on “Twitter Ethics: The Guy Adams Affair

  1. Jack, I mostly concur with this analysis; especially with regards to Honan–he got it wrong.

    So far Twitter has been an Internet darling that, if you believe some, has been the catalyst for regime change in some countries. In many ways it is a technology that governments and companies are desperately struggling to catch up with.

    Where Twitter got it wrong was with the apparent nepotism that it displayed on behalf of NBC. This is what outraged its user base. Both companies have been promoting their partnership that was uniquely developed for the Olympics. There’s no reason to split hairs about the private/public nature of an corporate executive’s email address. Twitter erred by not adhering to its policy regarding private information that states, “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.


    It appears that Zenkel and the rest of the executives already had their email addresses published long before this complaint. Twitter’s actions were disingenuous, inconsistent and lacked integrity. It was not fair to Adams and the rest of the user base to make a rule exception for an executive of a company that they are in bed with. That’s not good business practice.

  2. Everything I’ve seen suggests that the problem is that Adams didn’t violate Twitter’s rule as stated because he published Zenkel’s work e-mail, which is readily accessible with a Google search; he didn’t, then, publish a “private” e-mail address, which is what the policy forbids.

    Assuming that the work address is as publicly accessible as Adams says (I haven’t checked, and the clutter surrounding this case makes it difficult to do so), that’s a real distinction: anyone who bothers to look can find my work e-mail address; my private account, however, is–and ought to be–well, my private address, which I give to friends and colleagues but don’t publicize.

    That NBC and Twitter are in a business arrangement with respect to the very thing Adams was writing about, the Olympics, makes this look particularly bad. Yes, they can set (virtually) whatever rules they want. But they can’t arbitrarily enforce a rule that doesn’t exist just because their powerful corporate partner is being (justly) embarrassed.

  3. Since I think publishing addresses and regular phone numbers in tweets to promote harassment is unethical, I have no problem with a broad interpretation of “private” for Twitter enforcement purposes. I don’t think phone numbers and e-mail addresses should be sent out over Twitter, period. I interpret “private” to mean “personal” rather than corporate. Using Google to distinguish between what is “private” or not seems too narrow—what isn’t available over Google?

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