Twitter and Censorship
It's fascinating to follow the commentary and reactions to Twitter's suspending the account of a user who put the private (or at least, very hard to find) e-mail address of an NBC executive in a tweet. The social media service later backtracked, reinstating the account and publishing an apology.
Whatever Twitter's reasons for the action (many suspect they were pressured by corporate partner NBC), I'm struck by the fact that so many reflexively called Twitter's actions censorship. This is a relatively new use of the term and shows how much our media culture has changed in the Internet age. Traditionally, and as recently as the early years of the last decade, it was understood by media professionals that censorship is something the government does, and the term cannot and should not apply to private companies. Newspapers and magazines have long instituted and enforced editorial policies that require careful vetting of content to ensure information is factual and not libelous, and that no privacy laws are violated. It was seen as self-evident that publishers had the right to decide what they did and did not print, if for no other reason than to avoid being sued.
Of course, there have always been instances where media companies come up for harsh criticism for pulling controversial (usually political) content—CBS and the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour being one famous example—but the type of criticism being levied at Twitter is of a different type. We now take it as self evident that the Twitters of the world should leave the open forums they host alone, no matter what is said. Congress gave this approach its seal of approval with laws that create immunity for websites and ISPs hosting third-party content, creating, essentially, a two-tiered media landscape of carefully-edited print and the anything-goes Web. It's one of the reasons the role of the editor has diminished online, but it has, in a very real sense, allowed the social media revolution to take place. Companies like Twitter could not have gotten off the ground if they had to worry about user posts in the same way your local paper has to fret over letters to the editor.
Twitter and Facebook are forced to walk a careful line between that of publisher and platform provider. As companies whose business is content, and which hope to gain revenue by selling ads around that content, they look and act an awful lot like publishers, though they are reluctant to refer to themselves that way. We still think of publishers as gatekeepers that take some responsibility for the information they present, and, because quality and accuracy undergirds brands like The New York Times and The Atlantic, we can expect this to continue. (Witness the PR nightmare of CNN and FOX's misreporting the Supreme Court's Obamacare ruling. No one would have expected Twitter to worry about whether those early reports were correct.)
Twitter the Publisher might be expected to behave differently than Twitter the Social Media Platform. It's no wonder they (along with Facebook, Yahoo, and so many others) are unsettled about how to identify themselves—and no wonder that Twitter is doing some stumbling and backtracking as it navigates the new media world it helped create.