Should you trust Twitter?

accountsuspended

So the kerfuffle over Twitter’s suspension of journalist Guy Adams’ account has ended, with the company reinstating it and issuing an apology of sorts.

Adams, the Los Angeles-based correspondent for The Independent newspaper, had been posting a series of tweets that were highly-critical of US TV network NBC and its broadcast coverage of the London 2012 Olympics. The account suspension followed Adams’ disclosing an email address of an NBC executive in a tweet which Twitter said was in breach of its terms of service.

The suspension lit up the social web with all sorts of protest over the past day and a half. But now that Adams has his Twitter account again, all’s well that ends well, right?

I’m not so sure it does. What Twitter did and perhaps more importantly, how they did it, is a bit worrying for an online service that’s part of the fabric of the social web, in which many people and organizations have placed a great deal of implicit trust.

In the apology posted late yesterday, Twitter’s general counsel Alex McGillivray describes how Twitter handles situations in which users post the personal information of other people, such as email addresses. He makes clear reference to Twitter’s terms of service which cover such matters.

But here’s the worrying part.

McGillivray also discloses this:

[...] we want to apologize for the part of this story that we did mess up. The team working closely with NBC around our Olympics partnership did proactively identify a Tweet that was in violation of the Twitter Rules and encouraged them to file a support ticket with our Trust and Safety team to report the violation, as has now been reported publicly. Our Trust and Safety team did not know that part of the story and acted on the report as they would any other.

In other words, one part of Twitter used privileged information to tell another part of Twitter something that had to be acted on in accordance with Twitter’s terms of service.

McGillivray continues:

As I stated earlier, we do not proactively report or remove content on behalf of other users no matter who they are. This behavior 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. As of earlier today, the account has been unsuspended, and we will actively work to ensure this does not happen again.

An employee or employees doing something internally that is not an acceptable practice is nothing new so Twitter shouldn’t be damned for that alone. As McGillivray notes, it’s a matter they’re addressing internally to “ensure this does not happen again.”

In the meantime, though, I do think trust in Twitter has suffered a setback, perhaps only a minor one given the fact that common sense prevailed, the suspension was quickly reversed and an explanation and apology publicly communicated.

Yet with all the best goodwill in the world, how would anyone know something arbitrary like this won’t happen again? Or something else? Has a commercial relationship Twitter has, such as the one it has with NBC, affected its judgement and behaviour, putting in question its neutrality and, indeed, user trust?

While such conversations will continue and reverberate, I say give Twitter the benefit of the doubt – but be circumspect and recognize that Twitter is a company made up of people (like every company) and people do make mistakes.

It’s how they fix them, and how quickly, that will be a benchmark of trust going forward.

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