Only the law can properly decide Twitter abuse cases

Screen Shot 2013-07-27 at 13.09.00So here we go again. In response to abuse and threats directed at Caroline Criado-Perez it’s people like @bmitchellwrites saying it’s “Time for Twitter to stand up for women abused online“. Some of his words:

It’s about time big organisations acknowledged their responsibility and yes, a duty of care, to its users, and those subjected to campaign after campaign of abuse. Too often very rich CEOs hide away pleading impotence. We’ll suspend their account. Temporarily. This seems to be the best they’re willing to do. But, it’s not enough.  It’s not nearly enough. Many of these people are breaking the law. You are not allowed to threaten people in “real life.” If the laws of libel are the same offline as they are online, this must surely apply to the above.

Twitter needs to permanently disable these users’ accounts and ensure that any attempt to set up another (many online abusers operate from multiple accounts) from the same email address, even better from the same computer, is similarly declined.

Firstly, my own experience. I have been subjected to death threats online (in connection with the Atheist Bus Campaign), and am regularly subjected to abuse on Twitter. I have never faced what Caroline Criado-Perez has had to face, but it is not as if my online activity is a walk in the park either. Online abuse is nasty, it hurts, it’s vile. But just where the line where verbal abuse crosses to something unlawful, this is hard and complex to solve, and there are no short cuts.

Let’s take each bit of Ben’s ideas apart. It might have 100+ million regular users, but Twitter has around 1000 employees. It is not actually making much money. And we all use it for free. And then we expect it to have a greater duty of care to its users? Do we want to have out cake and eat it? Further, even if Twitter were to be able to pay greater attention to what its users were writing, I have considerable ethical concerns with that – I do not want the company ending up with the odd set of prescriptions that Facebook has, where nipples are not OK, but crushed limbs are. Twitter not acting is therefore not a CEO hiding away and pleading impotence, but actually – and rightly – not wanting to be drawn into a legal and ethical minefield.

Ben’s second point – life bans – is also unworkable. All you need to do to create a new Twitter account is to create a new e-mail address. To be able to have multiple accounts for multiple purposes is one of the strengths of Twitter – for entirely legitimate purposes (I am also @atheistbus, @techpolitics, @freemoveeu etc., as well as my main @jonworth). The way the network functions should not be dictated by the worst of its users, and hence I am most definitely against an imposition of an obligation to use your own name on Twitter. Also that’s what China does.

The answer – and I’m sorry if this is boring and slow and tedious – is with law. Report people for their behaviour and take them to court, and if they have been libellous, threatening or otherwise unlawful then try them in a court of law. Rather than complaining at Twitter in all of this, make the demand that the UK police has a better social media reporting system, that if the police are investigating they can mandate Twitter to impose a temporary ban on a user.

In short: I do not want Twitter judging what is and is not lawful. I want the police to investigate, and a court of law to judge what is and is not lawful. However horrid online debate comes, we should never lose sight of that.

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