Speaking at a tech conference in San Francisco last year, Twitter’s chief executive Dick Costolo waxed lyrical about his company’s “core values,” which he claimed revolve around “the need to defend the user’s voice.” A motto frequently bandied about by senior colleagues, he declared, is that: “we are the free-speech wing of the free-speech party.”
Somewhere along the way, Mr Costolo’s shiny, happy, ethos seems to have been abandoned. On Friday afternoon, a so-far unnamed employee of his micro-blogging company contacted the broadcaster NBC’s “social media” department, to ask if they fancied having a hostile journalist removed from what is generally called the “Twittersphere.”
That journalist was me. And in a series of events which has already taken up far too much airspace, I found myself suspended by Twitter, on the grounds that I wrote a tweet critical of NBC’s Olympic coverage which urged readers to email the executive in charge of it, and carried that executive’s work email address.
My account has since been re-instated after a vigorous and at times heart-warming campaign by the online community. Much outrage was caused by the revelation that NBC and Twitter have a commercial relationship, leading to allegations that a financial motive underpinned what was effectively an act of censorship.
The corporate controversy comes at an interesting moment in Twitter’s history. Though the firm has been astonishingly successful at attracting users – there are upwards of half a billion – it seems to have so far had only marginal success at leveraging those users into cold, hard cash. Though revenues are growing, there are almost no analysts who believe Twitter is yet making a profit. And it is now six years old.
This is where Twitter’s relationship with NBC becomes still more fascinating. At present, the micro-blogging site makes all its money from straight advertising, which is not particularly lucrative. Its Olympic Games tie-in with the broadcaster, involving branded web pages and cross-promotional knick-knacks, showcases the sort of innovative and multi-faceted deal which could drive Twitter’s commercial future.
To succeed in that endeavour, Twitter will have to get chummy with a slew of major corporations. And, if what occurred when they got into bed with NBC is anything to go by, this will result in ongoing pressure for Twitter to compromise its core principles in order to serve their paymasters’ interests. Twitter could, in other words, become yet another new media platform which was originally dedicated to democratic self expression, but compromised its core values due to narrow self-interest.
The firm could go the other way, of course. You only have to look at Wikipedia, which puts information-sharing firmly ahead of commerce, and consider the firm’s lead role in the recent anti-SOPA blackout, to appreciate that it isn’t impossible for new media organisations to remain true to their roots. But Wikipedia is a non-profit. Twitter has ambitions to stop being a non-profit some time soon.
Journalists, along with anyone else who supports the advancement of free speech are therefore entitled to wonder if they should continue to trust Twitter. Much will depend on how the firm proceeds following this week’s controversy. On Tuesday afternoon, its legal counsel, Alex MacGillivray, posted a qualified apology for the firm’s conduct with regard to my suspension, saying that the (still unnamed) employee who had originally reached out to NBC betrayed the firm’s principles.
“This behaviour 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,” MacGillivray wrote. “We will actively work to ensure this does not happen again.
The apology does not, however, go so far as to apologise for suspending me. In fact, in his carefully-worded statement, Mr MacGillivray continues to insist that the Tweet which led to my suspension from the site this week “was in violation of Twitter rules” regarding privacy because it contained someone’s “private email address”.
But this was clearly not the case. As multiple outlets have detailed, I shared a work, rather than personal address, And Twitter’s own rules clearly state that the company does not consider information already published online to be private. The NBC executive’s email address which I was suspended for sharing had already been published online.
Meanwhile we still don’t know what Twitter was doing monitoring my status updates in the first place. No-one knows the name of the employee who first alerted NBC, or why they did what they did. No-one knows if they’ve been reprimanded for breaching their firm’s core values. No-one knows who, in the site’s “Trust and Safety” team dealt with NBC’s complaint, or by what logic they arrived at the decision to suspend me. So far as I’m aware, no Twitter spokesman has appeared on the airwaves to answer any substantive questions about the case.
With all that in mind, and given the obfuscation which has so far characterised Twitter’s public statements on this affair, what will become of Mr Costolo’s self-professed position on the free speech wing of the free speech party? His site’s users deserve to be told.
Guy Adams is The Independent’s Los Angeles correspondent. Find Adams on Twitter @guyadams