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Posted on May 22, 2008

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Update 3: Please see my follow-up post about Twitter’s response.
I started using Twitter in March 2007, just before their SXSW explosion. Not surprisingly, I instantly became addicted and since then have used the service for everything from personal to professional.

Overall, Twitter is a great platform to connect with friends and co-workers and it felt safe in an “everyone knows everyone” sort of way in the beginning. However, as with any social network that continues to grow (especially one that focuses on broadcasting messages to the masses), it opens itself up to the prospect of abuse, harassment, spam, and other types of typical Terms of Service violations. Considering the social network-sphere as it exists today, most people would assume that Twitter would be prepared to react and take action against TOS violations – their TOS page even states “(These terms of service were inspired, with permission, by Flickr.)” – Flickr being well-known for taking action on TOS violations, even when the violations are debatable.

As I found out last month, the reality of Twitter is that they refuse to warn and/or ban people who use their service to “abuse, harass, threaten, impersonate or intimidate other Twitter users” (to quote their fourth line item on their TOS page). What does this mean? In short, anyone can use Twitter to consistently harass you and ruin search results for your identity and Twitter won’t execute any means of community management.

In June 2007, I unfortunately found myself on the receiving end of multiple accounts of harassment from a user on Twitter. When the user started using my full name in their harassing tweets, I reported the harassment as a form of cyberbullying to Twitter’s community manager and received a response that let me know they cared about the situation:

“[We] have decided, as a preemptive measure, to remove [the user’s] updates from the public timeline. … If you have anymore problems with [this user], please let us know right away, we’re here to help :)”

The harassment continued throughout the course of 2007. Since Twitter and I had an open dialog started, I would periodically report cases of continuing harassment (some of which spread between Flickr and Twitter). Twitter would take no action while Flickr would immediately ban and remove all traces of the harassment.

Unfortunately, in 2008 it escalated to a level that could no longer be ignored. Tweets were being fired off directly calling me a “cunt” amongst other harassing language. On March 14, I wrote to Twitter, giving the example URLs of abuse and stated to them clearly:

“Since this is an ongoing case and due to the nature of the content, I think this person is clearly violating Twitter’s TOS and I find it necessary for Twitter to uphold to this: “4. You must not abuse, harass, threaten, impersonate or intimidate other Twitter users.” Honestly, I believe this harassment has gotten way out of hand for too long. I am writing to you and to Twitter to remove this user for consistent long-term harassment.”

Twitter responded after 3 days:

“Unfortunately, although [this user’s] behavior is admittedly mean, [s/he] isn’t necessarily doing anything against our terms of service. I’ve been following [their] profile since your first complaint to monitor [them], as well. We can’t remove [this user’s] profile or ban [this user’s] IP address; [they’re] not doing anything illegal.”

To which I replied (at which point, Jack, Twitter’s CEO was copied):

“I don’t believe this is a case of illegal activity – this is a clear case of harassment which is outlined in your TOS.

To be blunt, I find that someone using your service to call me a “cunt” in a public forum is defined as harassment.

Again, your TOS states:
“4. You must not abuse, harass, threaten, impersonate or intimidate other Twitter users.”

It’s Twitter’s responsibility to uphold the TOS, otherwise the TOS has no meaning.”

At this point, Jack responded requesting a phone discussion about the issue. My notes from the phone call on March 19:

I told Jack that it the harassment has escalated and that it was a very clear violation of their TOS and that I had had similar cases of harassment on Flickr in which Flickr took down all 3 of the harassing accounts. I asked Jack if Twitter had ever dealt with stalkers or banning people before and he told me they never had. Jack explained that they’re scared to ban someone because they’re scared if it turned into a lawsuit that they are too small of a company to handle it.

Jack additionally explained that their TOS was up for interpretation, to which I responded that it isn’t. I explained that it clearly states “You must not harass other Twitter users” and that harassment is defined as continuous small attacks, which this is.

Jack then asked me about what other social networks had done. I said that Flickr deleted all the profiles and that services like Digg and Pownce don’t think twice about banning abusive or harassing users because it’s part of the TOS. (Note: Flickr is known for asking users to take down content and/or banning accounts that might even very loosely be *considered* as harassment, which, again, I find interesting, considering at the end of Twitter’s TOS, it states: “(These terms of service were inspired, with permission, by Flickr.)”).

Jack asked me what good it would do to ban my stalker since it seemed obvious that the stalker would continue to stalk me elsewhere. I told him that it was not his nor Twitter’s responsibility nor business to stop my stalker, but that it was very much their responsibility to identify users violating their TOS on their own service and take action accordingly.

At the end of the conversation, Jack asked me “well, what would be a happy resolution for you?”. I responded saying that seeing the user who is consistently harassing me banned. I told him that I totally support Twitter and want to see them do well and was trying to understand their fear of getting sued, so I said that at the “EXTREMELY least” that Twitter needed to send the user harassing me a warning, that Twitter didn’t owe the user any information other than the fact that they had been reported as violating their TOS and to cease or be banned. I very much stressed that Twitter needs to send users violating TOS a warning at the very least if they don’t ban. Jack then said he would need to talk to their lawyers about that and would get back to me by the end of the next week.

Jack didn’t get back to me until I emailed him on April 9 with 8 new instances of abuse that included my full name and email address, attached to words like “crack-whore” and “lesbian porn”, to which he emailed me back a response:

“Ariel,

Apologies for the delay here. We’ve reviewed the matter and decided it’s not in our best interest to get involved. We’ve tasked our lawyers with a full review and update of our TOS.

Thank you for your patience and understanding and good luck with resolving the problem.

Best,
Jack.”

Thanks, Twitter. It’s great to know that your Terms of Service that you force everyone to agree to don’t mean anything.

Update: I’ve also started a topic on Get Satisfaction about the issue that also outlines how Twitter’s excuse of being sued holds no ground under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

Update 2: This is already disclosed in the about section of this blog already, but I am stating it again here at the request of others: I am the community manager for Pownce, however, this issue started before I was working at Pownce. The opinions stated here do not reflect my clients/employers and I did *not* write this in the interest of them. It is well known that I am not a Twitter-hater (much the opposite).

276 Comments

  1. Twitter Fails to Enforce TOS — Specifically, Harassment.
    May 22, 2008

    […] goes into a detailed account of the situation on her blog. Essentially, the attacker has been using Flickr and Twitter in conjunction to sling insults and […]

  2. Erik Jonasson » The Internet Harassment Culture
    May 22, 2008

    […] buzzing about regarding internet harassment and micoblogging site Twitter. Specifically, one user has posted about Twitter’s unwillingness to follow through on their terms of service, which state: […]

  3. Joe Manna
    May 22, 2008

    @Duane, Free Speech is up to a network’s discretion, when hosted on a private network. (Twitter isn’t on a government network, that is.)

    Also terminating (deleting) user accounts is effective when done consistently and swiftly.

    I shared my perspective on this. I support you Ariel. Twitter ought to enforce their TOS, because it’s the right thing to do, regardless of Legal liability (which they inherently have protections).

    http://www.joemanna.com/blog/twitter-fails-to-enforce-tos-specifically-harassment/

  4. Hmm
    May 22, 2008

    “cunt” sounds accurate. Stop snitching. Get off the tubes.

  5. Pat
    May 22, 2008

    Maybe it’s someone at Twitter that is harrassing you.

  6. Danny!
    May 22, 2008

    What the fuck’s wrong with you that you inspire so much harassment? I bet you’re making this all up for attention. Either way, I could care less. Here’s an idea, if it bothers you so much, stop using Twitter.

    Oh, but then you wouldn’t get your gossip fast enough. Blarrrrg

  7. notes, thoughts, ideas and responses » FriendFeed! And Twitter? Continue To Butt Heads, Can They Form A Symbiotic Relationship?
    May 22, 2008

    […] their shortcomings and ask for help. Not helping their cause is a claim made by Ariel Waldman that Twitter refuses to uphold their terms of service. It seems Twitter can never move two steps forward without taking one step back and I hope their […]

  8. Eguled
    May 22, 2008

    Read the article, read all the comments. Sorry to hear all this has happened to you. Having said that, I think you are barking up the wrong tree. If this person seriously wronged you, then file a lawsuit against the person who you allege harrassed you. Even if it is a “John Doe” lawsuit, and have the court require Twitter provide you with the information related to the account. This should be between you and the person who you say wronged you. Also, I do have to say a few things come to mind: I’m usually fairly liberal and open minded about things, but you do come off as sounding more than a little whiney. (Actually many of the people commenting here come off sounding even more whiney.) You sound like you’ve led a sheltered life, maybe protected by the bubble of a university setting. The real world can be rough and tumble, sometimes mean. I don’t see anything wrong with the guy publishing your full name and email address if they are already readily published by you on the net. If he put your soc sec # or credit card # or threatened to hurt you or something like that, I’d say those would cross the line. But calling you bad names? Wow, rough day. Does that suck that he called you bad names? Probably. But I really think you should take that up with him directly. Mean people suck. Bullies are even worse. You can’t expect that every time someone says something mean to you that the institution will come and make the bully go away, like they did at the university.

  9. Charles
    May 22, 2008

    Boy Eguled sure makes a lot of assumptions.

    Without knowing Ariel, he assumes that she went to a university and that she complained to university administrators about someone bullying her.

    That is either a whole lot of projection on his part, or he is the stalker surfacing in this comment thread to get in a few more digs at Ariel.

    Lemme see if I can play the same “assumption game”: Emuled seems to me like an overweight geek living in his mother’s basement, who is smart but not as smart as he thinks he is. He has not gotten laid since he went to Tijuana about 12 years ago, and those Polaroids from that encounter are fading in his grubby hands with continually dirty fingernails. He has filed a lawsuit against his dry cleaner because they cleaned a “special stain” out of his polyester slacks. He believes this action is entirely justified and should not in any way be viewed as an “appeal to the authorities”.

  10. Angela Q
    May 22, 2008

    It’s pretty clear to me that the reason they will never do anything about this is that the harrasser is one of them. I deal with a site where several women have had their personal info compromised by an employee and nothing was done until the women called in lawyers.

  11. Bernardo Carvalho
    May 22, 2008

    Sorry, but I have to ask – Do you have examples of the offending messages? Is the harrassment on Flickr and Twitter related? Also, why do you get harrassed so much?

    Really hard to take sides, your info lacks context.

  12. Eguled
    May 22, 2008

    Charles, that is precious. I am seriously laughing at your post.

  13. Eguled
    May 22, 2008

    Angela Q: What evidence do you have that the harrasser is one of the people at Twitter? That’s a serious accusation to make. Does your statement give ground for Twitter to sue you?

  14. Violetta
    May 22, 2008

    Wow. That’s unbelievable.

    Just today I wanted to report a Twitter user that uses his Twitter profile for promoting his commercial pornography site, and I just couldn’t find a button to do so!

    I guess that’s the system Twitter is operating under. First don’t give you a transparent way to report wrong things (no button, form to fill out etc.), and if you reach them per email they just ignore your complains.

    I’m just wondering what would happen if there was a stalker for Twitter employees. I bet that person would be deleted in no second!

  15. Alex
    May 22, 2008

    You should write them a letter threatening to sue them for allowing the harassment to continue. If it continues say you will also contact the appropriate authorities to enforce harassment protections. It doesn’t even have to be based in any legal fact. They don’t want to be involved or get bad press from a lawsuit; this leaves them to choice of banning the guy or potentially facing a legal mess (they’ll chose the ban option).

  16. Nobody
    May 22, 2008

    Aw, you want an internet band-aid?

  17. nmb
    May 22, 2008

    fuck twitter, i’ll cancel my account imediately.

  18. TubeCams
    May 22, 2008

    So what’s this all about. I must be missing a bunch of the background to this story because from I read here, you can’t handle someone calling you a cunt or stating that you like lesbian porn. Twitter is not your site, this seems to be your site. Just stop using twitter. Who gives a shit if someone calls you a cunt or me a dick? I don’t let these things bother me. I would suggest you stop bitching about this and move on with your own site. Look at the popularity this has brought to this site, or at least this page on your site. You’re using what you’re complaining about for your own benefit. I suppose you’ll hide this under the guise of “bringing awareness to the issue.” I’ll also bet you delete this comment.

  19. Robert Simplicio
    May 22, 2008

    Now, I’m not Twitter, and to each their own. I feel that it is in horrible taste, and that is only based upon your e.g. Ariel’s account of this. We have no record publicly available to review, because as I recall from hunting this down, the user voluntarily removed their account or something to that effect in March.

    Now, again, I’m not Twitter’s CEO. But if I were, or I were their community manager, I would have taken decisive action. That’s what feels like it’s missing here. Action. Their in analysis paralysis. So what if you’re a small company? I’m a one-person show. If I’m running the service, and you get a complaint filed against you, you will get a stern warning and referral to my TOS. If the user so much as looked the wrong way at anyone, especially the person who reported to offense, off to the bit bucket it would go. And, might I add, I would have taken screenshots/DB dumps, etc. for forensic analysis off-line or to back up my actions and decisions if I ever felt the need or want, or subpeona, to defend them.

    My wife and I, and many other friends, have been moderators in practice or in fact in many other communities that could be construed as “communication utilities”. I just truly feel that Twitter has dropped the ball here. And evidentally did it mid-last year, no less. To a valued user. Or what should be a valued user. Now, I will not stop using Twitter. They do that for me involuntarily all the time. I will not comment on that but to say that if it were my service, it would not have this issue as I would have found ways to fix it by now (being at least a year on from the SXSW blow-up).

    There are no easy answers. Saying that you will not get involved, or saying this is not straightforward is a cop-out. Plain and simple. You are a human being, not a communication service. Business don’t run businesses, people do. Communication services are only as good as the value they add. At the end of the day, you have to do what is right to you, not what you think is the safe course, or the legal course, or whatever excuse you’re going to hide behind. Be men, and human, and do the right thing.

  20. Rob
    May 22, 2008

    sorry about the super long URL, should have used tinyurl

  21. Robert Simplicio
    May 22, 2008

    If the shoe were on the other foot, and they felt someone violated them, the company, the same way that I’m sure you feel violated, they would have had their attorneys send (at the least) a cease and desist letter. I suggest you do the same. It’s time to escalate it beyond the CEO. OK, that makes no sense. But it did when I wrote it, so I’ll leave it.

  22. Eguled
    May 22, 2008

    Tubecams has a good point. If someone calls me a dick, I would just laugh and move on. So someone called you a cunt. Big deal. Seriously.

  23. Parkhill Venture Counsel » Blog Archive » Same Issue, Different Worlds
    May 22, 2008

    […] has been a dust-up in certain corners of the Internet recently over Twitter’s alleged failure to deal appropriately with […]

  24. lane hartwell
    May 22, 2008

    after reading more background on this, I think I’ve changed my mind a bit.

    I think it’s become quite common for people to toss around terms like “harassment” and so on. I’ve seen people claim they are being stalked and then when you ask them what that means they say “oh, they leave comments on my photos” or something to that effect.

    I think there is a huge difference.

    As unpleasant as it is sometimes, people are going to express opinions about you that might hurt you. They might call you names, or talk about your appearance, or whatever. Those comments might have no basis in fact at all, but still, it happens.

    The internet is a breeding ground for this because people don’t have to reveal who they are. So they hide behind that and call you names. It’s cowardly and immature and can be hurtful and painful, but is is harassment? I’m not sure. If you turn off your computer, does this problem cease? If you stop posting on twitter, does it follow you?

    I was bashed by a mob of anonymous people for weeks a few months ago. They posted on my blog, called me names, sent me e-mails, and posted misinformation on their blogs about me. It was hard to take sometimes. I allowed all the comments to stay on my blog because in the end I truly believed that those comments would speak far louder about the character of the posters than anything I could ever say. Many people actually spoke out for me because of this.

    I also think it’s important that people take responsibility for what they put out there. If you put online things that are controversial, people are going to have strong opinions about it, both good and bad. Do you really want to control that?

    I’m not against you, Ariel, but I’m not sure I think Twitter has handled it poorly. It might be really hurtful and annoying that someone is calling you names, but is it bona fide harassment? I’m not sure. If they ban that account for name calling, where does it stop? I’m not sure I want that kind of twitter.

  25. Mom
    May 22, 2008

    Yes, this is Ariel’s real mother. Those of you who are easily manipulated by media driven celebrity conspiracy theories or actually believe there is no such thing as integrity any longer will ignore this post. Too bad for you.

    I am not here to comment on twitter, TOS, freedom of speech, the “sexiness” of ShakeWellBeforeUse or if Ariel is a c—. If I said she wasn’t, you wouldn’t believe me anyway.

    I CAN attest to one thing. It IS a fact Ariel’s stalker has been after her for over 3 years beginning in her home town—before she had a high profile on the web. I have seen the physical evidence and know it to be threatening. Ariel did nothing to initiate this situation, the person in question is mentally unbalanced and deeply insecure. The person found out where she lived and made it known to her. Ariel has done everything within her power (talking to the person and friends of the person, police, legal advice, adjustment of lifestyle) to defuse the situation all to no avail. I had thought when she moved to the city, these attacks would end, but they have not. There is more than mere name calling going on. There is a history of vindictive harrassment. Whatever else you think about how she is handling it is your opinion, but she did NOT make this up.

    Since I have known Ariel all her life I can tell you one thing. She plays by the rules. She does not manipulate people or situations for her own gain. And she is too smart to screw up her own reputation as a consultant in social media to try and play competing services against each other. All speculation on that account is ridiculous.

    And Mom to Ariel: you could have told me you were going to blog this rather than let me randomly find out about it on my own.