Social media’s public square, Twitter, flirted with censorship this weekend by suspending the account of Guy Adams, the Los Angeles bureau chief for The Independent, a mainstream British newspaper. After Adams tweeted a string of complaints about television coverage of the Olympics last weekend, Twitter shut down his account Sunday. Supposedly, this was because he had posted the e-mail address of an executive for NBC, which is broadcasting the games. But the address was hardly private; it’s a work account that follows the same easy-to-discern pattern as other NBC e-mail addresses.
As a private company, Twitter has the right to shut down accounts. But when it blocks users who criticize one of its business partners — Twitter and NBC are collaborating on the Olympics — it undermines the reason it has become so popular. Millions of people use Twitter to express thoughts to a broad audience and find out what’s going on; that’s evident not only in the burst of traffic during the London Games, but also in tweets by Arab Spring activists, American politicians, and even traditional media outlets tweeting the news. Stifling critics of Twitter’s friends sets a terrible precedent.
Twitter’s policy for suspending accounts does indeed include a ban on tweets of others’ personal e-mail addresses. But a standard-form business address of an executive whose company is dominating the news isn’t personal information. Twitter may have recognized this Tuesday when it let Adams back on. In the future, the company should err on the side of more speech, not less.