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. Anna K
    May 22, 2008

    I’m disgusted with Twitter’s inaction. Their inaction is more offensive and dangerous than any action they are afraid of taking.

  2. Ed Roberts
    May 22, 2008

    Wow. This is clearly a case of “if we do it once, we are responsible for monitoring it all” … essentially opening Pandora’s box. Slander is illegal, which is definitely where it moved to. At that point, the argument of “they aren’t doing anything illegal” is invalid, let alone the TOS junk.
    Another confusing thing is that they’ve started to take action on spammers recently. Why wouldn’t they take action on this recurring, dangerous problem? I’d much rather have them give the boot or AT LEAST warnings to this type of harassment. I can understand not immediately banning someone when there is a complaint. Yet, this has been going on for MONTHS with open dialog about what was going on.
    Horrible.

  3. John Johansen / jljohansen
    May 22, 2008

    Going to repeat what Michelle said. I can handle the outages but turning your back on the community that is supporting you would drive me away.

  4. Joseph Hunkins
    May 22, 2008

    sorry, didn’t finish earlier comment: If the community continues to tolerate this level of abuse and misuse everybody’s rights and voices will be more stifled than if reason prevails and we ban highly abusive people from the scene.

  5. Lori
    May 22, 2008

    that is ridiculous. i’m so sorry this is happening to you.

  6. PJ Doland
    May 22, 2008

    Is writing stuff like this about Twitter a part of your job as the community manager for Pownce?

  7. Glowbird
    May 22, 2008

    I scanned the comments, but didn’t see the person’s name or twitter name. Seems appropriate that it should be shared so we’ll all know…

  8. Dick
    May 22, 2008

    If they can’t keep the platform up the least they could do is care for the users who stick with them while they fuckin suck ass.

  9. Britney Mason
    May 22, 2008

    This is just dumb. Twitter is dumb. They are turning their community against them with no action.

  10. Kevin Makice
    May 22, 2008

    I wonder if a community-wide action of blocking the user would help. Sort of a reverse Digg, or communal voting off the island.

    I hope you weather through this. Thanks for sharing your story. I’m sure you aren’t alone in this.

  11. GGJeffy
    May 22, 2008

    Yikes! Looks like you’ll have to stop using Twitter in order to stop being harassed.

  12. crunchy carpets
    May 22, 2008

    Hmm I wonder if they ‘knew’ the harasser. I remember once on a forum that a harasser was connected to the the powers that be that ran the site..making them untouchable basically.

    It sounds here like they would have preferred YOU went away instead.

    With that and the amount of down time and slow time..you gotta wonder

  13. Ben
    May 22, 2008

    That’s terrible. I’m sorry to hear about that. I was thinking of trying Twitter out, but I don’t think I’m interested now.

    Hmm… Odd, it seems like you could have potential grounds for a lawsuit. I’m no lawyer, but it seems they broke their terms of service.

  14. R
    May 22, 2008

    This is really awful. I’ll reconsider using Twitter from now on.

    However, and I don’t want to get flamed for this, but why do you think it was vague to Twitter? Certainly you don’t want to propagate the nasty things being said about you, but if we don’t see them, we can’t *completley* grab our pitchforks and torches against Twitter’s insensitivity.

    I hope this all gets resolved very soon.

  15. zeldman
    May 22, 2008

    Unbelievably lame and sad. I’m shocked. And I feel angry on your behalf.

  16. Jeff Davis
    May 22, 2008

    That is very disturbing to say the least. Twitter needs to step up and stand behind their TOS – it is that simple. Sorry you are having to deal with this.

  17. yttrx
    May 22, 2008

    Having had some experience with just this kind of thing, from the receiving end of harassment to being the person who decides what accounts live and die in a variety of public forums and for large companies, I can tell you this:

    Twitter will honor its TOS the very moment Jack gets *upset* enough to do so. Classically, the (BOFH) method is to tweet-harass Jack himself until he complies with his own TOS.

  18. coleki
    May 22, 2008

    I wonder if you can sue or threaten to sue them for allowing this user to commit libel on their system, when their TOS (presumably) states that they will take action against those types of violations…

  19. it's me again margret
    May 22, 2008

    she’s a whiney ass.Sounds like she didn’t get called a cunt till she tried to have his account closed.Hey this is the world and we are adults get over it.

  20. Jim of D
    May 22, 2008

    Why not just quit Twitter?

  21. Martin Oetting
    May 22, 2008

    Your experience seems so strange. If this wasn’t ridiculous, I would almost assume that they seem to want to protect this person for some strange reason… At any rate, I retweeted and blogged this, and I hope enough support in the community will build up.

  22. coleki
    May 22, 2008

    (replying to myself here…) Well it appears that threatening to sue them won’t work, because of this clause in their TOS:
    “While Twitter.com prohibits such conduct and content on its site, you understand and agree that Twitter cannot be responsible for the Content posted on its web site and you nonetheless may be exposed to such materials and that you use the Twitter.com service at your own risk.”

  23. coleki
    May 22, 2008

    (replying to myself here…) Well it appears that threatening to sue them won’t work, because of this clause in their TOS:
    “While Twitter.com prohibits such conduct and content on its site, you understand and agree that Twitter cannot be responsible for the Content posted on its web site and you nonetheless may be exposed to such materials and that you use the Twitter.com service at your own risk.”
    I wonder if that’s always been in their TOS…

  24. debutaunt
    May 22, 2008

    Hmm. Thought this was a joke comment – guess not? Still e-stalking = no fun, but maybe your ties with Pownce are why Twitter will take no action?

    # PJ Doland Says:
    May 22nd, 2008 at 11:56 am

    Is writing stuff like this about Twitter a part of your job as the community manager for Pownce?

  25. werk
    May 22, 2008

    Sounds like one side of a story to me. My guess would be that you are responding in kind if not provoking this person or twitter would have taken action in your defense as all other social networks have and do.

    Not enough info for me to pick a side here, but it smells a little too one-sided for me to grab my torch and pitchfork.

  26. Josh Nichols
    May 22, 2008

    I really hate to even suggest it…

    What if, by some coincidence, twitter employees were to start being harassed on twitter?

  27. YdurZosavachia
    May 22, 2008

    This reminds me of this Austin Tx rule where animal control does nothing if a dog confronts a human unless (I stress the word UNLESS.) it actually hurts someone. boo…

  28. Ashley Sue of Green Grounded
    May 22, 2008

    Wow~ Twitter is acting completely irresponsibly in this situation. TOS is clear, in which case users cannot dispute if they violate policy.

    I will be reposting this and helping draw attention to this corporate irresponsibility.

  29. Jim Raynor
    May 22, 2008

    I sent twitter a complaint. I’m not sure it will get anything changed, but I hope it does

  30. Twitter Faces Serious Problems - Covering All That's Social On the Web
    May 22, 2008

    […] such person is Ariel Waldman who has been harassed on the site. She was driven to post on Get Satisfaction following […]

  31. iamjolly
    May 22, 2008

    Very disturbing stuff there Ariel, and it’s a terrible stance for Twitter to take. I’ve had similar experiences with harassment (not on Twitter) and have had to take further action before. I hope you are able to find peace.
    To Jack at Twitter, please wake up, realize you’re looking like an ass here and make things right.

  32. Claye
    May 22, 2008

    C’mon Twitter, you’ve got to stick up for your users – a lot of terrible things are done within the limits of the law.

  33. unvs
    May 22, 2008

    This is insane! So sad to hear about this..

  34. Yaanu
    May 22, 2008

    Too long, didn’t read.

  35. Debbie
    May 22, 2008

    Lets be honest, no one really needs twitter, and with responses like that, I don’t think I want to use them.

  36. neednewbed.com
    May 22, 2008

    twitter rhymes with shitter for a very good reason

  37. Yaanu
    May 22, 2008

    Besides, who on the Internet actually uses their real name?

  38. Clemdog
    May 22, 2008

    But what if you are a cunt? Doesn’t freedom of speech allow people to call each other names? I feel like we are not hearing the whole story here. Why should Twitter have to step in for some petty disagreement between two people. If Twitter had to step in every time someone called someone else a bad name they wouldn’t have time to do anything else. That would be the end of Twitter. Web service operators are not under any obligation to enforce their Terms, but they can at their discretion.

  39. ttrentham
    May 22, 2008

    Between the uptime problems and this, it’s not very good PR week for Twitter.

  40. thenathster
    May 22, 2008

    That reply Twitter sent to you about doing nothing illegal is wrong. It is illegal to use language like that on the internet. Any swearing or such has been illegal for a long time on the internet, but since it would be an invasion of privacy for the government to spy on the internet like that, the government can’t just start arresting people. I’m not sure if you could actually have someone arrested for it, but i know if people repeatedly curse in public when asked to stop, they can be taken to court and fined, or even spend a short time (like 90 days) in jail.

  41. fsda
    May 22, 2008

    Ever heard of freedom of speech?

  42. enclaved
    May 22, 2008

    Obviously, everyone here is looking at this wrong. It isn’t sad that twitter is not handling abusive users well, it is awesome that twitter is letting everyone be that way. Join in, have fun. Once it degrades into a sniveling mess of drooling retards calling everyone a cunt, they’ll realize what it cost them to not do anything.

  43. Frak
    May 22, 2008

    Rebellion against Twitter! Time to bounce to Pownce!

    Seriously, I have stopped using Twitter for sending personal messages. It’s a major personal security risk.

    I know someone at this very moment who is traveling abroad and Twittering via mobile, “It’s really a beautiful day here in (Country)!” Yeah, and while you’re enjoying the weather, I’ll be in your house stealing your big screen and raiding your fridge and there’s nothing you can do about it. Thanks for the tip, Twitterman!

    Use IM for personal messages for cryin’ out loud. And I could give a rat’s ass about what you’re listening to right now, what movie you watched, and what restaurant you are currently picking your nose in.

  44. nick
    May 22, 2008

    stop using twitter then? why people feel compelled to update the world on their daily routine is beyond me.

  45. Nick Braak
    May 22, 2008

    This is account being used. Seems like more of a sort of anonymizer service for twitter/social experiment. http://kosso.co.uk/twitter/confess/

  46. Alan Bristow
    May 22, 2008

    Most irresponsible and poor of twitter. I am sorry indeed for you. Twitter seem to be enjoying the good of being in the space they are in, without accepting that there is a price, namely that that need to be responsible and act as a reasonable person would act (and not shirk responsibility simply because it comes with risk).

  47. Jeffrey Zeldman Presents : A Tweet Too Far
    May 22, 2008

    […] Waldman’s “Twitter Refuses to Uphold Terms of Service” makes a disturbing read and a depressing […]

  48. Kara M.
    May 22, 2008

    How frustrating for you to endure such abuse and not get the resolution you deserve. I’m so sorry to hear about this situation and I’m utterly disappointed in Twitter and their negligence in enforcing basic TOA.

  49. Andrew
    May 22, 2008

    Apparently, according to the Internet Archive, the part of the TOS concerning “we can’t police ourselves, so deal with it” (see the point made by coleki above) has been there since the beginning – http://tinyurl.com/6oh54w