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).

50 Comments

  1. billso
    May 22, 2008

    Yikes. Not a good story. You’d think Twitter would have their act together by now… but they still make excuses for uptime, TOS, etc.

  2. Greg
    May 22, 2008

    very sad to hear that Twitter took such a nonchalant attitude toward this.

  3. Chuck Olsen
    May 22, 2008

    This is just plain unacceptable.

  4. MG Siegler
    May 22, 2008

    Interesting and troubling. I’ll be following this.

  5. m
    May 22, 2008

    that sucks. I am curious why their legal team advised against getting involved. It makes no sense. It’s clearly harassment. I used to product manage a social network and we took these things very seriously. Then again, we had a whole center in the Phillipines monitoring all this stuff. Twitter probably has no bandwidth. However, after all the correspondence you sent, they should have complied with your request. Too bad.

  6. Casey McKinnon
    May 22, 2008

    So wrong…

  7. Brad P. from NJ
    May 22, 2008

    Not good… not good… I have my own personal reasons for wanting to make sure that Twitter enforces that particular aspect of their TOS. I can only say that I hope Twitter gets their act together and starts enforcing their not-vague TOS.

  8. Michelle / chelpixie
    May 22, 2008

    They had to know that it couldn’t get them sued, otherwise flickr would have had lawsuits many times over by now by upholding their TOS.

    I can live with the downtime, this however, makes me stop and think.

  9. Ryan
    May 22, 2008

    How on earth would they get sued for enforcing a TOS the user in question agreed to? In fact, who would be dumb enough to sue Twitter for some imaginary “right” to use their service to harass?

    I can see not wanting to intercede out of laziness (imagine having to police the whole system of millions of users — that’s a full time job to be sure)… but blaming it on a fear of litigation sounds ridiculous to me.

  10. Steve Rhodes
    May 22, 2008

    Twitter should care more about someone harassing you than the remote possibility of a lawsuit (especially since flickr had delteted the accounts and not been sued).

  11. reechard
    May 22, 2008

    How horrible. And Twitter’s response shockingly deficient. Boo Twitter.

  12. sean percival
    May 22, 2008

    This remind me of a break up story, in these cases its usually “her side, his side, and somewhere in between the truth”.

    Would rather have the real backstory or have a link to the person, why hide their identity? Or is just some anonymous troll?

  13. Eddie / ekai
    May 22, 2008

    Sucks you had to go through all this, Ariel. I hope you get resolution.

  14. Brian / urbanbohemian
    May 22, 2008

    “in our best interest not to get involved?!”

    That’s just pure insanity and shows they didn’t think about their TOS when they posted it, instead wanting something in print to try and cover their ass.

  15. MC
    May 22, 2008

    Thanks for sharing this with everyone, Ariel, it’s pretty eye opening. This situation is ridiculous and upsetting. Sorry you’ve had to deal with it!

    I hope Twitter will actually start doing something about their TOS. Good luck with things, keep us posted on what happens.

  16. Maykel Loomans
    May 22, 2008

    A weird move on Twitter’s behalf I must say. The actual interesting part in this case is that companies (web and non-web) have been servicing their customers in an utmost helpful way. Look at things such as MS’s halo x360, they washed. The anti dell backlash. The digg revolt.. I’m wondering if the guys at twitter ever thought of a probable social backlash this could have.. Especially in cases like these it’s obvious that a social webbased backlash is much more of a liability than a legal one. What would happen if this got to pages like techcrunch, digg etc? I will follow this with great interest! Please tweet about it if there’s an update! I’ve got you on follow :) (oh, the irony!)

  17. Nathan
    May 22, 2008

    I think they came up with a brilliant solution: cause the service to go down. No twitter=no harassment. And here we thought it was a scalability issue.

  18. George Kelly / allaboutgeorge
    May 22, 2008

    What a drag. I wish you hadn’t had to go through all this. I hope it’s better really soon.

  19. giannii
    May 22, 2008

    Just wow…

  20. Mirko
    May 22, 2008

    I love Twitter, but this is exceedingly lame and unacceptable. Shame on them. :(

  21. Robert Chute
    May 22, 2008

    I hope that this post and others will force twitter to take more aggressive action.

  22. Leigh Ann D.
    May 22, 2008

    With all the other stalking/harassment cases in the social networking world I am very surprised that Twitter decided not to do anything about this. I wish you safety and luck!

  23. Katie Paine
    May 22, 2008

    I have to say that Twitter’s lack of response on this and other issues is unacceptable. How can a company that doesn’t listen to its customers survive? This is far worse than Twitter’s version of the Facebook/Beacon debacle.

  24. Mattie
    May 22, 2008

    This is very alarming. These kinds of situations happen on social networks quite often and most don’t even flinch when banning such obviously abusive users. The risk of being sued for a direct TOS violation is low, but not as low as some people may think. That being the case, I highly doubt the user would sue or would win that court case.

    It’s these kinds of cold receptions that can really be bad PR for a company. It would have been better for them to ban the user and deal with a possible law suit than the horrible PR this kind of situation can cause. In banning a user, the probability is much lower than in ignoring the situation (as Twitter has) and wiping their hands clean of their own TOS.

  25. Parky
    May 22, 2008

    You should sue Twitter for allowing it go on. Surely they are now, (and IANAL BTW) by *not* doing anything accessories after the fact or something?

  26. lynette {radio}
    May 22, 2008

    If you ‘copy’ Flickr’s TOS, and Flickr bans someone based on that TOS, don’t you think you should too? (since apparently Twitter is all about copying and not thinking for themselves) Very disappointing. If this happened to *ME*, I would be suing Twitter for not upholding the TOS. If they are so afraid of a lawsuit, maybe they should realize that the scumbag that is doing this to you is not the one that will come after them. USERS WHO GET STALKED WILL.

  27. DieLaughing
    May 22, 2008

    Tell me who it is and I’ll trace and expose them. Twitter can’t have decent security with morons in charge, I’ll hack the DB and get back to you in a couple of hours.

  28. Colin Stewart
    May 22, 2008

    That’s so disappointing, so cowardly and so wrong-headed. Should Twitter not be more afraid of a potential lawsuit from you over their failure to abide by their own stated rules? Good luck.

  29. Neil
    May 22, 2008

    Hopefully, now they will be embarrassed into taking action.

  30. Nathan Ketsdeve
    May 22, 2008

    Thats both horrible and tragic. I hope Twitter resolves your concerns. The problem on YouTube is equally troubling, although I don’t know how it squares
    with their TOS.

  31. Twitters Terms of Service = EPIC FAIL « Charnell Pugsley
    May 22, 2008

    […] Read Ariel Waldman’s full story here. […]

  32. Noel Jackson
    May 22, 2008

    OMG. This is awful Ariel. Sorry to hear about it. WTF is wrong with Twitter? I’d think ev wouldn’t stand for this… apparently Twitter has no integrity.

  33. missbhavens
    May 22, 2008

    Shame, shame, shame on twitter for being so nonchalant and so LAME! I’m so disappointed in them.

    They’re afraid of getting sued by someone who is violating their terms of service? That’s weasely and weird and totally unacceptable.

    I say you should sue them ASAP.

    No, seriously. Sue them.

  34. Aaron Richard
    May 22, 2008

    Do you know who the user is? If you do, and they are doing something like using personal information, you may have some kind of legal recourse under a right to privacy statute. If it’s just your full name, probably not, especially given that you use your full name as a username. Still, even the threat may be enough to get it to stop.

    Is the harassment on Twitter directed AT you? I would think that would be the difference between Twitter and Flickr. With Flickr, any kind of harassment would come in the form of comments left on your photos—clearly a personal attack. But with Twitter, well if someone is just talking trash about you, they sort of have a right to do that—so long as it’s not defamatory.

    Side note, the pinkness of your background causes me to see strange after color impressions when reading your blog and then looking at a white wall. Cool!

  35. C.C. Chapman
    May 22, 2008

    I can’t believe they are taking no action. It feels like they are turning a blind eye to an obvious problem and hoping it goes away. What are they thinking??

  36. charnellpugsley
    May 22, 2008

    This is awful. Having to grudge through the random downtimes we all have to experience with Twitter and now this, it makes me wonder what’s next. I’ve blogged your post, trackback’d, and have spread the word to other Twitter peeps (personal friends). I hope they choose to reconsider how they handle their TOS in the future.

  37. Vicki Davis
    May 22, 2008

    Twitter should do their part but people should also be held accountable for their actions. This person obviously has issues and I’m sure if they’re doing it here, they are doing it other places. There is no reason for this not to be able to be handled in some forum.

  38. dougwalk
    May 22, 2008

    Time to get out the big guns. Might want to pick up the phone and call @Ev. He seems like responsible sort of chap that would do the right thing. Or so I hope.

  39. Eugene Chan
    May 22, 2008

    Not cool. I hope you get this resolved ASAP! Do the right thing Twitter.

  40. Joe
    May 22, 2008

    Thanks for sharing that with everyone, I find posts like this to very difficult to write and I am glad that you shed light on this difficult subject matter in your life. Twitter needs to get with it. That is just ridiculous. Respect.

  41. Sameer Vasta
    May 22, 2008

    As someone who reads the TOS of every service I sign up for (much to the ridicule of my friends), I’m glad you brought this issue up.

    I’m so sorry that you had to go through this situation, and hope that it gets resolved soon.

    I do, however, hope that this serves as an example to people to be more aware of the TOS they agree to every time they sign up for a service.

  42. jason carlin
    May 22, 2008

    Wow. This is entirely unacceptable. Clearly it is the responsibility of any application that enables user-to-user communication to prevent itself from becoming a tool for unlawful or inappropriate public defamation. Maybe the next part of the conversation should be between Jack and your representation.

  43. Silona
    May 22, 2008

    Wow that is a bit naive on their part since you can sue them for NOT upholding it as a breach of contract.

    anyhoo sorry that psycho is still stalking you hon. god knows i feel for you on this one. At least my serious (aka dangerous) stalker issues were resolved before the internet got big.

    I mean the fan boy thing happens occasionally but nothing negative.

    you would think that “you know who” would get a life!

  44. Mark Jaquith
    May 22, 2008

    It’s completely ridiculous that they’d hide behind “don’t want to get sued” for a case with clear-cut violations of their TOS. Plus, it’s a free service. They don’t owe anything to anyone. I fail to see with what standing someone could sue for being banned.

  45. Lawrence
    May 22, 2008

    You know you’ve triggered a good few hundred lawsuits there?

    Anyway, I don’t see how a company with 8-figure investments can not afford a lawyer that can respond with a solid, definitive answer.

    Surely any lawyer in the field should know that when somebody violates terms of service clearly given to them when joining a (lets not forget, here) *FREE* service, they should get a warning, followed by a ban. What can an abuser of the system sue for? Loss of possession/finance? Nope. Twitter doesn’t use any. Loss of business? Nope, I’m pretty sure those users had little impact on the population of Twitter, e.g. low followers, and they wouldn’t be doing business on an account with such concerning language.

    I am very pro-twitter, but I can’t help thinking that they have not even considered scalability in their business plans.

    They should have a long board meeting, and not come back until they have mastered the basic concepts of scalable platforms.

  46. urban_ mermaid
    May 22, 2008

    ariel, this is shameful, especially since i know you can show a persistent pattern of harassment on the part of this individual across the web. it’s one thing to call someone a c__t once, it’s another for a habitual pattern to emerge, exposing your email.
    how will twitter treat others when this happens? i know that companies struggle with community management, but things that are bad for one member of the community tend to drag down the dialog as a whole.
    may this individual be banished, and may twitter respond.

  47. Lawrence
    May 22, 2008

    One more thing – why do we all have this idea in our heads that we can sue people in a free service?

  48. Kelly
    May 22, 2008

    I am in no way saying that the initial behavior – nor the response – is acceptable. But.
    I do understand Twitter’s legal concerns. My firm reps a large ISP and folks are constantly threatening suit over banning, removal, etc. Even when those folks don’t win, they can run up substantial legal costs to the company. The reality is that Twitter has likely done a cost analysis to determine how much it would cost to enforce an interpretation of the TOS and their legal team seems to have indicated that it would be more expensive to ban, etc., in this instance.
    I also agree with Aaron Richard re your personal remedies which might be available.
    One thing that is confusing – you mentioned that the user’s updates were removed from the timeline. If that were true and you weren’t following the user, how would you know that it was happening? Did Twitter put the tweets back up?
    Good luck.

  49. Joseph Hunkins
    May 22, 2008

    Shame on Twitter. Unless you’ve left out important details about this (ie have you been counter-abusive to this stalker, are they known to you, have you filed with police?)

    This is very alarming, though it is consistent with the idea that free speech pretty much trumps even the potential for violence and danger. If the community continues to tolerate this level of abuse and misuse.

  50. Jared K.
    May 22, 2008

    This is absolutely terrible. Bad, bad Twitter. No cookie. Spread the word! Tweet this link to all of your friends.