The #nbcfail isn't about email addresses, it's about corporate cronyism

Twitter needs to be clear if they have bent the rules for their commercial partners.

The question Twitter has to answer after suspending the Independent's Guy Adams isn't the narrow one about public versus private email addresses, but the broader one about how it plans to treat its commercial partners.

Adams tweeted the work email address of NBC executive Gary Zenkel, encouraging his followers to complain about the fact that the channel was showing the biggest events, like the opening ceremony and the 400m individual medley in which Michael Phelps was expected to (but didn't) medal, on a time delay.

Adams himself points out that it's contentious as to whether he even breached Twitter's guidelines to do so:

Twitter's guidelines forbid users from publishing what they call "private" information, including "private email addresses". There is plenty of sense in this. But I did not Tweet a private email address. I Tweeted a corporate address for Mr Zenkel, which is widely listed online, and is identical in form to that of tens of thousands of those at NBC.

Much of the debate surrounding the suspension has focused on whether a corporate email address, which is easy to work out but not actually made public by NBC or Zenkel, counts as a "public" or "private" email address. But that distinction is largely irrelevent; Twitter is perfectly within its rights to suspend Adams pending investigation, and as the debate shows, the case is unclear enough that it could be a genuine belief that the tweet breaks the terms of service.

The real concern should be when the story is combined with the knowledge that NBC and Twitter are in a massive, Olympics related, partnership:

Twitter and NBC are set to team up to provide an official hub page for the London Olympics, with the microblogging service serving as an "official narrator" of the Games. . .

Neither party is paying for the privilege, but Twitter reportedly sees it as a golden opportunity to expand its audience beyond the current 140 million monthly users, with vice president of media Chloe Sladden calling it "a way for new users to sample Twitter."

The question Twitter has to answer is whether they acted differently in the case of Zenkler/Adams because of this partnership. And based on news reports this morning, the situation doesn't look good. The Telegraph's Amy Willis reports:

In an email to The Daily Telegraph, Christopher McCloskey, NBC Sport’s vice-president of communications, said Twitter had actually contacted the network’s social media department to alert them to Mr Adam’s tweets. “Our social media dept was actually alerted to it by Twitter and then we filled out the form and submitted it,” he wrote. An email asking for further detail and whether this was normal Twitter policy was not returned from NBC or Twitter.

With this story hot on the heels of Twitter's clampdown against Instagram, it is clearer than ever that the service has reached a turning point in its maturation. The company no longer wants to be the communication network it has been treated as since its conception, now that it knows the real money is in the media. The challenge will be if it can make that leap without alienating its users.

Douchebag Twitter.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.