August 02, 2012

Twitter, NBC, and the "Streisand Effect"

By now you probably know at least the outlines of the recent controversy surrounding Twitter, NBC, censorship, and the Olympics.

Let's very quickly review.

Unlike virtually every other broadcaster on the planet covering the Olympics, NBC decides to delay and edit all non-Internet Olympic programming for prime time, explicitly suggesting that American audiences are "too stupid" to understand events such as the opening ceremonies without NBC's "expert editing and commentary." NBC raises ire in England when they cut a tribute to terrorism victims from the delayed, edited, U.S. version.

NBC proclaims that their approach has been vindicated, since viewership of their bastardized coverage is breaking records, and since they're in business primarily to make money, not to serve viewers in any case. Observers note that since most viewers didn't know how to use the Internet to find "illicit" live feeds, they're like any hungry person -- they'll eat what's put in front of them.

A journalist upset about NBC's handling of Olympic coverage sends out a Twitter tweet with an NBC executive's corporate email address, suggesting that viewers let him know how they feel about NBC's coverage.

Twitter suspends the journalist's Twitter account, claiming he violated Twitter terms of use related to "private information" and "information not already published on the Internet publicly."

Mass interest in the story ensues, making the NBC executive's email address one of the best known in the world.

NBC claims they only filed a complaint about the journalist's tweet after Twitter itself suggested they do so, and NBC says they did not realize this would result in the journalist's Twitter account being suspended.

Twitter admits that their team partnering with NBC for the Olympics did indeed notice the "offending" tweet and suggested to NBC that a complaint be filed. Twitter stipulates that while it's possible to argue about whether the specific email in question actually contained private information, it was clearly wrong for the Twitter team to have triggered this chain of events.

Journalist's Twitter account is restored (this might have happened anyway after a warning, according to normal Twitter policy).

I'm very pleased to see that Twitter has clearly admitted that proactive stream monitoring and dispute filing of this sort by Twitter itself are inappropriate, and that they will take steps to avoid this sort of confrontation in the future. The confidence of Twitter's user community is perhaps its most crucial asset -- once really lost it may be difficult or impossible to regain.

Of perhaps broader long-term interest is the whole question of public information and censorship on the Internet.

We can make short order of the "was it public?" question in this particular case.

The NBC exec's corporate email address was of the form "" -- a format that is not only highly standardized for public email addresses, but explicitly exposed on NBC Universal's own media contact Web page.

What's more, in this case the executive's address was already specifically noted on various Web pages (including a page protesting NBC from 2011), making his address public by an even more obvious measure.

An argument has been made that his address didn't appear on many pages, so it wasn't "widely" known.

I don't know what "widely" is supposed to actually mean in this context, but the bottom line is that a simple search would find his email address in seconds, so the absolute number of pages where the address appeared is really utterly irrelevant. One is as good as a thousand from the searcher's standpoint.

Clearly, this email address was public. Twitter could have quickly made this determination to a reasonable level of confidence.

Which leads us to another question.

What if the journalist in this case hadn't tweeted the actual email address, but rather tweeted the simple search terms required to find the address? What would Twitter have done in that case?

I don't know the answer to this one, but the question itself points to the fundamental issue.

Attempts to control the dissemination of information on the Internet that has already been made public, are almost always doomed.

As regular readers probably know, I call this concept "public is public."

We can be upset that certain information is out there, we can wish it weren't,
we can dream of turning back the clock and stuffing the genie back into the bottle.

None of this will usually make any difference at all, except that efforts to limit the spread of such information will often trigger the notorious "Streisand Effect."

The Streisand Effect -- named for entertainer Barbra Streisand, whose efforts to block the dissemination on the Net of information regarding her Malibu home led to vastly more attention to that property than would have been the case if she hadn't complained in the first place.

We see this sort of situation play out in various related forms again and again.

Efforts to takedown already published data result in even more copies appearing all over the Web, creating an impossible Whac-A-Mole nightmare for anyone trying to remove the data, and sometimes media attention that attracts orders of magnitude more people who then access the data.

In the NBC/Twitter case, that tweeted email address would have likely had virtually no impact if Twitter hadn't suspended the account, creating a cause célèbre in the process.

That's not to say that Twitter -- like all Web services -- doesn't have a legitimate responsibility to act in cases of actual, real abuse.

But it's important for us all to suppress the urge to err on the side of censorship, on the side of control. This is especially true considering the reality -- like it or not -- that once information is out there on the Net, it is in most cases effectively indelible, and that efforts to retroactively delete such data will not only almost always fail, but can easily do a great deal of collateral damage to innocents in the process.

You need not necessarily revel in this state of affairs, but it is the reality, and to fight against it is like trying to hold back the ocean with a sandcastle.

As always, I appreciate your thoughts on this and other issues, at my own email address of

And that's one address you can share without fear of page takedowns, account suspensions, or even guilty feelings in the dead of night.



Posted by Lauren at August 2, 2012 09:31 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein