The interwebs are all a flutter over how a critic of NBC’s Olympic coverage had his Twitter account suspended after tweeting the email address of the executive in charge of that coverage. It was private, said Twitter. Public to anyone with Google, said journalist Guy Adams, whose account was suspended. Actually, from what I can tell, it really wasn’t public to anyone with Google.
A Tweet Too Far
Adams is a journalist who works for The Independent. He’s tweeted loudly and proudly against NBC’s coverage of the Olympics, as Deadspin details. But when he encouraged people to email Gary Zenkel, the NBC president overseeing NBC’s coverage, that was a tweet too far.
NBC complained that sharing the email was a violation of Twitter’s rules governing posting private information, including that of “non-public, personal email addresses.” Twitter reacted by suspending Adams’s account.
That surprised Adams, who contacted Twitter PR, as he wrote, saying:
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. It’s no more “private” than the address I’m emailing you from right now
It’s hard for me to write anything negative about Adams, given I — like many — hate NBC’s policy of pretending that the Olympics are happening only during prime time in the United States
I joked on Twitter that the internet needed to buy the rights to the Olympics next time and set them free. It was one of the most retweeted things I’ve ever shared, 155 so far and still climbing.
Not Finding His Email Via Google
Still, I was curious whether Zenkel’s email address really was “widely available to anyone with access to Google,” as Adams claimed. Definitely not, I’d say.
Right now, there’s no problem finding Zenkel’s email address through Google. A search for Gary Zenkel email brings back over 30,000 matches, and you can see his address right in the description of some listings in the first page of results:
But what was the situation before the Zenkel’s email went viral, thanks to the Twitter suspension of Adams? One way to tell is to search for Zenkel’s email address (which we now know) on pages without any mention of Twitter. That brings back exactly one match:
That one match almost certainly wouldn’t have been in the top results for when someone did a search for “Gary Zenkel email” or related queries earlier this week, as I’ll explain more below.
But what if I’m somehow missing out on pages that did have both the email address and the word “twitter” but which weren’t about the current uproar. After all, plenty of pages have the word “twitter” on them for other reasons.
OK, so here’s another search. In this case, I did a search for Zenkel’s email address from the day before Adams tweeted it going back to 1996:
That brought up six matches. Oddly, it didn’t bring up the match I found before, even though it should have, but don’t get me going about Google searches not operating the way they should.
Speaking of which, of those six matches, at least two of them didn’t appear within these dates, despite what Google says. For instance, it seems like on June 15 (according to Google’s date), Zenkel’s email address appeared in comments on NBC’s own NBC News Facebook page. But if you go to the cached copy, it’s clear that the page was much more recent than that.
I figure at best, we’re looking at about five references that were out on the web with Zenkel’s actual email. As I said, that’s not “widely available,” especially considering that most people who really wanted it probably would have just searched for “gary zenkel email.” The matches I found wouldn’t have risen up over pages that just had the words “Gary Zenkel” and “email” on them.
Instead, they’d have gotten results similar to what I’m showing below, where I’ve date limited the matches and also blocked pages with the word “suspended” on them to make up for Google’s issue in knowing accurate dates:
Couldn’t People Have Guessed?
Of course, Adams also said that the address is “identical [in form] to one that all of the tens of thousands of NBC Universal employees share.” Does that mean it was widely available to anyone with Google?
As it turns out, people do apparently use Google to figure out the format for emailing people at NBC. It’s currently a suggestion that Google offers (though it might be a recent one prompted by all of this):
Still, I don’t think this means the address was widely available. The results you get back from that search are pretty cruddy. The NBC contact page certainly doesn’t spell it out. It’s not hard for people who really want to guess at it to know. But it’s not the same as just putting the address out there.
There remains the debate over whether sharing a corporate address is one that’s not personal and therefore not a violation of Twitter’s rules. I’d say no. Just because someone has a work address doesn’t make it not personal. It’s their personal work email.
Rules Aside, Better Ways To Spur Protests Than Tweeting Emails?
Like I said, I’m no fan of NBC’s coverage. My wife’s British, and we both would have liked to have seen the unedited Opening Ceremonies. But perhaps I’m beaten down. Expats have learned to live with this crud that most people in the US (and other countries) don’t seem to awaken to en masse until there’s some really major event like the Olympics.
Years of trying to view programs either in the US from the UK (see Dear BBC America: Would You Please Suck Less?) or shows from the US in the UK (see Watching The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade From Abroad and Showtime’s Web Site: For US Eyes Only) have continuously taught me how inept the television networks are on both sides of the Atlantic (see also Dear Rupert Murdoch: Let’s Talk Piracy & “The Simpsons” and You Can’t Watch SNL’s Hilarious “Downton Abbey” Sketch Legally Online, So NBCUniversal Pirates Itself). Inept at least to those who don’t understand how the licensing deals they cut work.
At the same time, I don’t think sharing people’s email addresses is cool. I don’t need a Twitter policy that may or may not prevent it. Common manners should suffice (see also my column this week, Minding your manners when sharing in social media). There are better ways to rally people to protest something than handing out email addresses, phone numbers or real addresses. And there are some very bad consequences that can come when those things are done.
Here’s hoping that Adams gets his account restored soon; civility returns even in the middle of the debate and that NBC finds a way to make all parties happy with its coverage. It really shouldn’t be that hard.
Postscript: I’m also looking into the issue of why Adams was suspended when others, including celebrities, have done similar things without Twitter taking action. But Is Twitter’s Olympic knee jerk about money? from Chris Matyszczyk at CNET has some explanation from Twitter, chiefly that it only acts when there are formal complaints.
Postscript 2 (July 31): See my follow-up story, Why Adams & Not Others: Twitter’s Suspension Of Journalist’s Account In #NBCFail Flap Raises Questions.
Postscript 3 (July 31): And see yet an additional follow-up story, Twitter Apologizes, Admits One Department Helped NBC Get Journalist’s Account Suspended.
Postscript 4: (July 31): Adams told me via email that he found the address in a few seconds, using Google UK by entering Zenkel’s name (the executive in question) along with, as best he could remember, “nbcuniversal.”
I couldn’t make that happen using a simulation using date restriction. However, I suspect what he really did was a search for “gary zenkel nbcuni” (the domain used by NBCUniversal for its email addresses). That’s the type of search a journalist who is used to looking for emails might do.
Doing that myself, I get to the protest page from 2011 that has Zenkel’s email on it ranking tops, the page that Adams has written that he found the email on. Again, a simulation isn’t perfect, but it does give a far more reasonable explanation as to why Adams would assume that “widely available” and “widely listed” as he’s written. But for most people, that probably wouldn’t be the case.