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. Beau Wade
    May 22, 2008

    Sorry to hear this is happening and very surprised Twitter is keeping it’s tail between it’s legs on resolving the issue. This kind of thing makes a community intolerable. I hope for yours and all of our sake they come to their senses.

  2. /pd
    May 22, 2008

    have move this onto FF – for discussion
    http://friendfeed.com/e/e5d3dca7-2835-49a1-89bc-b9d22d49c2ce

  3. Nick O'Neill
    May 22, 2008

    Wow, after reading some of your comments I am amazed by the amount of crap you have to deal with. I only have one person that harasses me in the comments but having this many is ridiculous. Feel free to ping me if you ever need to vent. That’s truly unfortunate and unacceptable.

  4. Matt Joyce
    May 22, 2008

    I agree with twitter. You were not justified in your attempt to get their account removed. Don’t go crying to the site admin when someone decides to drop C-Bombs on you. We live in a society built on freedom of expression and speech. You are making a mistake by crossing the threshold even if for a good reason.

  5. Tony "BigTC"
    May 22, 2008

    I know someone else who was having problems like this Ariel. On Twitter, dm @Dayngr. Perhaps the power of 2 will help Twitter’s Mgmt that something needs to be done.

  6. Joshua McKenty
    May 22, 2008

    I have a lot of sympathy for you. I ended up settling a $1000 lawsuit after failing to get YouTube to enforce (or even investigate or return emails) their TOS. Ah well.

    The silver lining is that this sort of big-company-bullshit behavior is what creates space in the market for new entrepreneurs to do better.

    Great to see the Digg count growing on this one – I’m seeing a lot of re-tweets. Poetic justice – Twitter, the weapon of their own downfall.

  7. Epods
    May 22, 2008

    I flipped through the comments really fast, so apologize if this was already said, but couldn’t you just file a lawsuit because Twitter won’t uphold their ToS? :/

  8. DJ @ Fermentarium
    May 22, 2008

    Wow. It seems like Twitter is getting worse by the day. At what point do we all switch to Pownce? :)

  9. Will Twitter’s Growing Pains Open the Door to Competition? at definitive items of the utmost unimportance
    May 22, 2008

    […] is putting the pressure on the relatively small company. Most recently, a pretty strong case of Twitter refusing to uphold their own ToS and, arguably, enabling harassment in the process has not helped them […]

  10. Greg
    May 22, 2008

    Hi Ariel, I hope now that post is on digg that they will indeed take prompt action. I am betting this is a bad mannered little boy who’s parents did not spank him when he was younger. Wow give some people the feeling of being anonymous and they act like total bozo’s! Furthermore for the people who love talking about freedom of speech calling names is not speech it does not add any useful content to any discussion it only shows that the person has bad manners and has lost the debate because their point of view lacks merit. Profanity is always used by dimwitted people trying to cover that they have lost the debate or they are trying to impress those whom are slow intellectually…

  11. Kathy
    May 22, 2008

    Love reading the comments …. good ole misogynist geeks here, too.

    Guys, calling a women a cunt seems to be socially acceptable to some of you. If you were black, how would you feel if we called you a nigger? If you were muslim, how would you feel if we called you a raghead? If you were a jew, how would you feel if we called you a kyke? If you were chinese, how would you feel if we called you a chink?

    These are NOT civil forms of address, under any stretch.

    One instance of incivility is also not harassment. What Ariel has described, however, is clear harassment and possible defamation of character.

    Twitter has, IMO, set itself up to be sued for failing to uphold its own TOS. [IANAL] This is STUPID. Unfortunately, given the response to the Kathy Sierra incidents, and the HRC videos on YouTube, I suppose I should not be surprised at either Twitter’s “customer support” response or the responses of several people in this comment thread.

  12. David Chartier
    May 22, 2008

    Wow, this is terrible to hear. Sorry about your misadventures, and I hope getting the matter out in the open like this will help Twitter straighten out how they handle their own TOS violations.

  13. Dick Gozinya
    May 22, 2008

    sounds like a real cop out. http://www.rejectionism.com

  14. Maddy
    May 22, 2008

    I am real close to quitting Twitter as it is, sick of how kludgy the service is with frequent outages.

    Knowing that they play favorites with the kind of losers who called you “cunt” above, for all I know they could be Twitter employees themselves, I’m sick of them.

    I would be a Twitter enthusiast if they showed any sign of caring about the user experience. Instead they take their users for granted.

  15. R
    May 22, 2008

    This is exactly why I don’t use Twitter:

    1) No user advocacy
    2) Too many cunts

  16. Alan
    May 22, 2008

    Right! So I was just contemplating on whether I should recommend my friends to jump in with me on to th Twitter service, then I read this! Thank you for posting this. You might want to take a look at Tumblr, which I’ve found to be more innovative from the very start. shame on you Twitter. You just lost several dozen potential users from my end.

  17. Jenny, Bloggess
    May 22, 2008

    Maybe twitter thinks “cunt” is a term of endearment?

  18. Jon
    May 22, 2008

    Incredibly weak and pitiful response from Twitter. Makes me angry to think that their fear or ignorance of the law enables them to think it’s OK to push resolution of their problem to you. It’s as pathetic as the anonymous hate in some of the previous comments. Wishing you the best of luck.

  19. Dave Zatz
    May 22, 2008

    @Yanno I use my real name.

  20. Erin Kissane
    May 22, 2008

    Hi Ariel,

    Thanks for taking this public, and for doing so after attempting to deal with it in every other obvious way. It’s a pity that doing so dredges up the sad, emotionally stunted responses that show up whenever anyone discusses harassment.

    From a business perspective, deciding to allow people to use Twitter to harasser and stalk other users with impunity is incredibly stupid. It limits Twitter’s potential user base by alienating anyone who’s ever been stalked and I’d bet big stacks of money that it will alienate organizations who might want to use Twitter in interesting, innovative ways but aren’t interested in being associated with a service that lets harassment thrive.

    Flickr gets it, bless their clever little hearts. Twitter would do well to follow their example.

  21. Foster
    May 22, 2008

    Hey,

    Thanks for sharing this. A cautionary tale for us all, both Twitterers and social networking sites.

    I wish I didn’t see so many mean-spirited comments here. Free Speech is not permission to abuse others.

    ttrentham is spot-on, bad PR week for Twitter.

  22. Steve Rhodes
    May 22, 2008

    Kelly, you don’t do a cost benefit analysis when someone is being harrassed.

    And there is not absolute free speech on twitter. When people sign up, they agree to not “abuse, harass, threaten, impersonate or intimidate other Twitter users” and twitter should enforce that.

  23. Marty Net
    May 22, 2008

    Perhaps they should be worried that you will sue them. If they don’t uphold their TOS aren’t they participating in these acts of harassment? Sounds like a law suit to me.

  24. Erin Kissane
    May 22, 2008

    “Harass,” not “harasser.” Oh for comment preview.

  25. Replete
    May 22, 2008

    Unbelievable.

  26. zchamu
    May 22, 2008

    How on earth would they get sued for banning someone from using their service? Twitter isn’t a democracy, it’s a company owned by an individual or a series of individuals. It’s nobody’s “right” to use Twitter. You’re there “at their pleasure”, as it were.

    If their only excuse for not banning someone after several instances of clear and explicit abuse and harassment is that they “don’t want to get sued”, then they are clearly batshit crazy and obliviously stupid.

  27. Hax Or
    May 22, 2008

    Twitter stole the concept from Blue Puff Software’s Aquarium Blog. This is one more additional instance where they are not to be trusted. Karma’s gonna get ’em. ;)

  28. Ryan Benson
    May 22, 2008

    Like others have said, this is completely sick, especially since they your full name. One thing you didn’t mention (unless I missed it) is if the user is using the @(Your username) feature of Twitter, or if they are just saying “Ariel is a ___.” I would say this is crucial, cause while you think your name is unique there maybe another one of you.

    But still even if you are a third party and witnessing somebody harassing somebody else, and you report that to Twitter, Twitter has the obligation to take action.

  29. Keith
    May 22, 2008

    Wow, Ariel, this really sucks. I’m sorry to hear you had to go through any of this, let alone the TOS bullshit.

  30. IIsDaBmb
    May 22, 2008

    Great news for spammers! I assume that this post will gain enough popularity that spammers will abuse the system and Twitter will be forced to do something about it. I guess thats the point of the post.

  31. Tyrian
    May 22, 2008

    Yuanu –
    “Too long, didn’t read.”
    “Besides, who on the Internet actually uses their real name?”

    Exactly what I was thinking. Don’t be an attention whore on the internet and you won’t get trolled. Simple as that.

  32. Cyndy Aleo-Carreira
    May 22, 2008

    You know, I was really one of their fans, but over the past two weeks, I’ve become convinced that it’s a place being run by a bunch of amateurs. @Clemdog, no, freedom of speech does not include the right to harrass people. I’m starting to think that “The U.S. Constitution 101” should be required before anyone is allowed onto the Intartubes. Why bother having a TOS at all? I’m betting they copied it from another site, have no idea what it means, and are silly enough that they are willing to create more bad press in fears that they’ll get the bad press of a lawsuit.

    Keep in mind that they deleted Loren Feldman’s “Shelisreal” account, but that was a much bigger voice. I’m guessing they decided to hedge their bets on this one assuming no one would notice.

  33. Myron Dalrymple
    May 22, 2008

    Given your relationship to Pownce (ie. they are your corporate paymasters), your testimony should be taken with a grain of salt. Not claiming to know the situation, just seems to be some benefit in you fanning this controversy. Hackery.

  34. The good and the bad of engaging with your community — mrtopf.de
    May 22, 2008

    […] management when it comes to harrassment. Ariel Waldman experienced this herself and here is her blogpost about it which says it all. This shows once more that it’s not important what business or lawyers say, […]

  35. Michael Paulson
    May 22, 2008

    Talk about the use of Blogs and the web! This is exactly what we all should be doing! Ariel has done her homework and is doing exactly what she should be. I love twitter also but people going outside of the golden rule should be stopped no matter what! Some of these responses are about as shallow as the person that does the harassing also! There is no need for treating someone badly! No Twitter shouldn’t have to police each and everyone that thinks they are getting bothered. We should be grown up and acting like the people we are and the person that we want to be treated like! For those of you that left nastey remarks, remember this when the next person that spits in your face and treats you the same way. It will come back to you. Count on it! Keep going Ariel!

  36. digitaljhelms
    May 22, 2008

    I concur with ttrentham.

  37. Super Zoe
    May 22, 2008

    Great post on the distinctions between illegalities, and upholding a stated policy. Illuminating! Thanks!

  38. Steve Hall
    May 22, 2008

    Way to wake up/launch the new blog! I think everyone on the internets has read this:-) Sorry you have to deal with this but if you look at Blogger, Odeo and now Twitter, there’s an emerging pattern of lase fair (or however the fuck you spell that). Apologizing for problems is one thing. Apologizing and never fixing them is quite another.

  39. Kevin N. Murphy
    May 22, 2008

    Funny a “social” site would act more like a corporation just interested in protecting itself. Unacceptable.

  40. IT Guy
    May 22, 2008

    Sounds to me like your stalker is trying to “google bomb” you by publicly attaching bad things to your name and information. If google.com scans all of these it will start to associate your name with them. Good luck and keep trying to get this asshat taken care of.

  41. Heather R.
    May 22, 2008

    This is distressing.

    To everyone who is proposing that Ariel leave Twitter: You’re missing the point completely.

    Think about how a similar situation would pan out in the real world. You’re sitting in your favorite restaurant, having a fantastic meal. You go there regularly, and tip well. You have an amicable relationship with the owners of the establishment, and appreciate its services.

    Then, in walks a man who begins to loudly yell to the entire restaurant (not just to you) that you’re a xyzbadname. He also announces your personal contact information. This continues for the duration of your meal.

    The next time you go there, it happens again.

    The next time you go there, it happens again.

    And so on.

    Do you think 1) The owners would ever let it get that far? 2) It would be right for you to have to stop attending your favorite restaurant?

    No and no.

  42. helical
    May 22, 2008

    I think that a community effort would be required on this on (the “reverse digg” that kevin mackice suggested) because Twitter does have protection from enforcing their TOS.

    By their TOS:
    “We may, but have no obligation to, remove Content and accounts containing Content that we determine in our sole discretion are unlawful, offensive, threatening, libelous, defamatory, obscene or otherwise objectionable or violates any party’s intellectual property or these Terms of Use.”
    Twitter TOS, General Conditions, item 4

  43. Todd Sieling
    May 22, 2008

    I’m really surprised that Twitter has locked itself into a cranial-rectal insertion. Shockingly poor responses, all the way up the chain. Thanks for sharing this story.

  44. zchamu
    May 22, 2008

    Also, it’s pretty evident that your harasser is leaving lots o’messages on here too. Charming.

  45. JP32
    May 22, 2008

    This is a completely absurd position by Twitter’s mgt. Yes, they are right to worry about the expense of a lawsuit, but anyone can sue for anything (as long as they can pay the attny fees or convince an attny to take the case on spec). I doubt your harasser would get any attny to take the case on spec (for starters, what are his damages?), and he probably doesn’t have the funds to pay for one.

    The solution here is to get an attny to write a letter on your behalf, threatening to sue. You’ll have a much better case (and maybe even some legit damages). This will certainly get their attention, and maybe some action, when they realize that failure to act will also result in more legit suits.

    In any case, it shows that the mgt of Twitter are just mindless scared little pukes — not worth wasting our time on them. we should just avoid their service and let it die, in the reasonable expectation that some worthwhile people will soon start a better one.

  46. Paul Dettman
    May 22, 2008

    Ariel – You hit something here, for sure, but everyone seems to think you hit something different. My take is Twitter needs to enforce its own rules, otherwise they shouldn’t publish those rules. On the specifics of what was said to you, it is harsh enough to involve the police never mind the Twitter legal dept. On the specifics of Twitter, my patience is shot and after a couple weeks trying it out, their downtime is too great and their arrogance/apathy (hard to tell which) here is disappointing. One more cross in their box.

    I wonder – are you up for filing a test case? Could be fun…

  47. Eric Susch
    May 22, 2008

    Wow. I just lost a lot of respect for Twitter. What a shame.

    It’s not in their best interest to uphold their own TOS? Welcome to crazyland.

  48. ME
    May 22, 2008

    To bad Twitter is run by such twats! Boycott the service and stop saying nice things about them. Libel, slander? Do these ring a bell?

  49. chai
    May 22, 2008

    Seems to me like you could simply unplug from twitter and never have to read another harassing message. Also, I’m not so familiar with the service, but don’t you have to “opt-in” to read other user’s tweets?

  50. Rob
    May 22, 2008

    Jeez Ariel, that’s awful! Sorry to hear about your grief. I find it surprising Twitter are behaving like this – seems teenage-like? It really annoys me why some pranksters decide to screw a good thing up at the expense of everyone else.