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. Dave
    May 22, 2008

    They just cashed in $15m, plenty of cash for lawyers.

  2. Christopher Mims
    May 22, 2008

    I sometimes get the feeling that Twitter means well but they are just kind of new to this whole game. I had an incident in which Twitter actually took away my username for a while because MTV wanted it for promotional purposes (it’s complicated):
    http://slipr.com/2007/09/04/when-having-the-same-name-as-a-rap-star-means-youre-violating-twitters-terms-of-service-and-youre-left-feeling-kind-of-violated/

    fortunately, my story had a happier ending than yours and was resolved to my satisfaction…

    http://slipr.com/2007/09/05/mims-beef-with-mims-over-yay-twitter/

  3. Parky
    May 22, 2008

    To show your support fo Arial please Follow “WeSupportArial”

  4. prisca
    May 22, 2008

    very disappointed to read your post – how can Twitter treat this matter so dismissively..!?

    Hope your complaint will soon be acted on the way it should have been in the first place by banning and erasing this user.
    all the best.

  5. lane hartwell
    May 22, 2008

    just out the person harassing you. let the community take care of it, you know they will. too bad twitter isn’t backing you.

  6. Kevin Dill
    May 22, 2008

    It might just be time to switch to multimedia messaging at Clippl.com. We take our TOS seriously and will enforce it. :)

  7. Kelly
    May 22, 2008

    To clarify, you don’t have to be right in order to not be sued.

  8. HighAesthetic
    May 22, 2008

    Oh man, this is just adding weight to my growing concern that all twitter is is a building of the most viral and extensive spam database the world has ever known. When you refuse to put your users interests above your personal gain, you cease to be a community facilitator. I agree that it is not Twitters responsibility to intervene however it is their responsibility if it is continuous and/or escalating, thereby moving into the category of abuse.

  9. Unnamed
    May 22, 2008

    Hmm…. why isn’t Twitter afraid of being sued by a user who is continually harrassed? Twitter knows about the harrassment and refuses to do anything about it. By failing to act, they are condoning the harrassment. Innocent users have a reasonable expectation that Twitter will enforce their TOS in order to protect them from continued harrassment.

  10. sue me
    May 22, 2008

    they are scared of getting sued so they refuse to act. do they not realize that YOU can sue for their breach of contract?! politely inform them of this fact and you may get a better response.

  11. ktjames
    May 22, 2008

    How can Twitter claim that they can’t afford it? They have millions in venture money, right? They don’t advertise, and they must not be paying much for bandwidth since it goes down all the time. Not to mention the screen breaking. This is terrible. Will publicize.

  12. KC
    May 22, 2008

    Why can’t you just block their account? Did I miss that part?

  13. Cat Laine
    May 22, 2008

    It’s either a case of spinelessness or horrible lawyers (or worse lack of real concern for their userbase). What’s odd is that given so many of twitter’s devotees are women, why would they want to send the message that this sort of thing is kosher on their site? And to not even send the user a warning email is gutless. I’m very disappointed in their team.

  14. Ryan Rumsey
    May 22, 2008

    Unbelievable. I am saddened by this.

  15. Robert
    May 22, 2008

    Do they not realize that not enforcing their TOS can ultimately kill twitter off?

    What has allowed twitter to thrive is the community that has come to it, it’s not like we can’t move to another service like twitter….

  16. Ophelia Chong
    May 22, 2008

    Under the cloak of “anonymous” they sling mud at you and then hide. Cowards. In RL would they do that? Doubtful, unless they are open to getting a restraining order slapped on them. Twitter is on the side of more users, than enforcing their own TOS. i am sorry that you have to go through this.

  17. Thomas
    May 22, 2008

    Freedom of speech does not allow you to call each other bad names on Twitter. The First Amendment (ideally) protects us from government suppression of speech, but inciteful, untruthful or defamatory speech is excepted. Twitter is a private service and not subject to the first amendment. The TOS is a contract between Twitter and its users that expressly prohibits users from harassing others. There is no issue here of the truthfulness anyone being a “cunt”; in this context that word simply foul language.

  18. cleversimon
    May 22, 2008

    I wonder if you wouldn’t get a more acceptable response from Twitter if you had your lawyer talk to them, Ariel.

  19. Tim Dorr
    May 22, 2008

    Wow, that’s pretty dumb. I’m guessing Jack was hoping to sweep this under the rug and not turn it into a PR problem for them. Looks like just the opposite is going to happen. It would be a good time for him to come about on this issue, ban the guy, and accept responsibility for not taking action.

  20. VV
    May 22, 2008

    Someone calling you a cunt isn’t harassment. Cunt. :p

  21. huh
    May 22, 2008

    Have you tried talking to the “stalker”? Sometimes that is the best way to stop something like this, rather than passive aggresively emailing company CEOs.

  22. Andy Snaith
    May 22, 2008

    I find it shocking too that they seem to have tried to distance themselves from abuse happening within their own platform. If it is not up to them ‘to get involved’ then who is it upto? Clearly nobody, and for such a popular site this is poor!

  23. Alan Wilensky
    May 22, 2008

    Who would send mean messages to a nice young lady like yourself? I just can’t imagine. If you want, I can help track down their physical address, and give them a lead-pipe guaranteed trouble ticket in the knee cap. This worked for a friend, and I was glad to help.

  24. Ariel Waldman
    May 22, 2008

    Note: I did remove a few select comments on this post that were left just to call names rather than provide critical opinions.

  25. spikey
    May 22, 2008

    Twitter:Lame. How about you taking legal action against Twitter and that user for cyber bullying.

  26. mike
    May 22, 2008

    Should forward this along to Spark Capital. Inability to manage your community should be a red flag to anyone.

  27. Mike Dowden
    May 22, 2008

    Because ClemDog, it’s not about every time someone called someone else a bad name. It’s about repeatedly being harassed by the same person for a year. Not a singular drive-by or even multiple instances from different people. Same person. I think your argument might make sense in those instances. Not this one.

  28. Morghus
    May 22, 2008

    Holy s*it! I am going to assume that you’re not kidding (:P), and that the people at Twitter are … well … dumb. *hugs*

  29. Jeni
    May 22, 2008

    Wow. That’s really awful – and how disappointing to hear that Twitter basically sat on their hands and refused to deal with the situation.

  30. Jason Litka
    May 22, 2008

    Well then… I’m glad I never signed up.

  31. Charles Boyer
    May 22, 2008

    One gets the idea that Twitter is not taking its users seriously, as this seems to be a very clear case of harassment.

    Given this and their other problems, Twitter doesn’t seem like it will be long for the aether world, as something better will come along and replace them fairly quickly.

    Good luck Ariel.

  32. Lisa Brewster
    May 22, 2008

    Responding to Sean Percival’s comment way up there at the top of the page…regardless of where the truth lies between “his story” and “her story,” those types of attacks are never appropriate and should not be tolerated in a public forum.

    As someone who has been in this kind of situation before, kudos to Ariel for being brave enough to share her very personal experience to bring public attention to twitter’s policy enforcement.

    Disclaimer: I didn’t read all the other comments…count went from 91 to 180 something while I slipped off for a meeting. Sheesh!

  33. Emily Chang
    May 22, 2008

    This is a completely unacceptable response from Twitter. I’m extremely disappointed. They’re afraid of getting sued? The TOS I agreed to clearly states “#4: You must not abuse, harass, threaten, impersonate or intimidate other Twitter users.”

    As for the ridiculous comments above, the issue isn’t about Ariel, but everyone that uses Twitter. As I posted over at the Get Satisfaction forum: “Revising the TOS is not the answer. We want Twitter to uphold basic, decent community principles: if someone in the community is being harassed, Twitter should act immediately with a warning to the harasser, then a follow-up, and if it continues, ban them. We’re all passionate about Twitter but that’s because we believed this was a community, not a bureaucracy where you’ll change your TOS rather than do the right thing and protect your users.

    Would you have the same response to this issue if the harassment was being made against one of your own staff?”

  34. Twitter refuses to uphold Terms of Service | Scott's Morning Brew
    May 22, 2008

    […] And now it appears they are afraid of their own shadow when it comes to enforcing their own rules.  They have sparked the ire of social media consultant Ariel Waldman over her complaints to Twitter about a cyberbully who has been harassing her since 2007. 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 forth 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.  -=SOURCE=- […]

  35. thenathster
    May 22, 2008

    user fsda, freedom of speech only goes so far. You;re not allowed to go about yelling fire in public areas to create mass panic and such. It’s against the law. Just like you can’t get naked and run around it public; you can’t do whatever you want.

  36. John
    May 22, 2008

    Just found this. I really hope you get some resolution of this and not just another bunch of idiots. Its really disappointing to read of this reaction from Twitter. It seems to suggest they’ve missed the point that a social networking site needs to provide a safe place to succeed.

  37. Speroni
    May 22, 2008

    Use their fear against them. Threaten to sue them. Sue them.

  38. Bjoern
    May 22, 2008

    Hey Ariel, I am myself working in a project that has a Community of over 800k Users and I get your point on the Topic. But honestly, if you are successful you will always have people that are envious and will insult/harass/throw eggs at you and I think you are not so ingenuous that you think everyone loves you and no one would ever talk about you behind your back. Because that is happening every day for sure.

    I think you know best yourself that you’re not one of the things mentioned by your new best Twitter Friend and that you should care sh*t.

    And this will also have no influence on your Digital Reputation at all, people that are clever enough to look your name up on Twitter and find these things will also be clever enough to see if someone clearly is harassing you or has a point in what he says. People who don’t get that have a huge character flaw and are not worth talking to anyway.

    But to make this whole thing public does just a few things for sure and you should know that as a Community Manager, first of all people will ask themselves why is someone out of nowhere harassing you if you’ve done nothing, and you should know from your job that most of the time two people are involved if that kind of “conflicts” happen.

    It is hard to understand for most people that Stalking really exists and most of the time it is a one-side thing, just because there is such a small percentage who had these problems already, most people still strictly believe if someone is insulting or harassing you he has a reason for that.

    Secondly, if Jack asks you for a private phone call and answers your mails with confidential information and that they would like to help you but first need to call their lawyers etc. it is not nice to make this whole stuff public.

    Even if you feel attacked and treated unfair that is a thing which is definitely not working, what should the Twitter people think now? Every time we get a Mail from Ariel, we better not answer or she will pull out her mighty Megaphone and put that whole thing over the Internet?

    What would you do if you would be treated that way?

    Finally yet importantly, I have to say this whole thing is a big problem nonetheless. In Germany, we have strict Anti-Stalking laws for such cases. Moreover, if I were you I would also have a talk to a lawyer and have Twitter help me out to get the IP Address etc of that Guy / Girl / Chewbacca and report it to the police.

    Freedom of Speech does not mean to insult people even if the C-word is more something to laugh about than to react.

    Nevertheless, to bring your name together with drug use and pornography might be illegal even in the States. I don’t know.

    All in all Good luck with getting rid of your Stalker and all the best, but I think to make this whole thing Ultra Public, and with your relation to Pownce, make your own mind up what other people and maybe future employers might think about you know.

    It maybe just would have been better to check legal actions and delete your account on Twitter if you’re not happy with what the Twitter folks is telling you.

    Please see this as constructive criticism from someone who have seen and gone through much worse things. I fully understand that you want to protect yourself and you have full rights to do so. It’s just the way you do it that makes the difference.

    Just my very loooong 2 Cents.

    Cheers,
    Bjoern

    P.S: Thanks everyone for taking the time to read this.

    Stealing other peoples life time is such a bad habit.

  39. Mari
    May 22, 2008

    Jack being the owner of a small business, I can see why he’d be afraid of a lawsuit, but if it were me, I’d be more afraid of a blogpost like this detailing everything causing multiple users to quit using my service. I’ve never used twitter, and if they admit they wont uphold their own TOS, then I never will.

  40. » Let’s Connect on Twitter
    May 22, 2008

    […] it’s downtime and its questionable interpretation of its Terms of Service, I’m increasingly finding Twitter a great place to connect with […]

  41. Vicky
    May 22, 2008

    Thanks for this! Like many social networks I find myself curious what I’m missing out on but it seems like all of them have a disturbing TOS and I find myself having to be very careful about what information I post. Now I know not to even bother giving Twitter a chance.

    Thanks for saving me a lot of aggravation!

  42. John Yarbrough
    May 22, 2008

    Typical – another company acting out of fear instead of using common sense and decency. I sincerely hope that this gets resolved soon.

  43. Terms Of Service. Just For Show? : Slobokan’s Site O’ Schtuff
    May 22, 2008

    […] Twitter has some serious issues to address. […]

  44. Gavin Heaton
    May 22, 2008

    Thanks for bringing this out in the open. Hard to believe that this sort of behaviour is still being tolerated by community-based platforms.

  45. MsK
    May 22, 2008

    I realize this is being primarily focused upon Twitter because this is where the “attacks” are playing out; but IMHO, you should be going to the site that created the Confessions account on Twitter, too… asking them to ban their anonymous user’s IP who keeps mentioning your name. Twitter can’t see the *person* who is making the attack, so why make them responsible for it? The one who created the Confessions account should be responsible.

    I’ve read through SEVERAL comments following this and feel that it is a bit of an issue that Twitter isn’t contacting the account holder to remedy their side of the responsibility. But — who’s to say WHO is posting the comments in the Confessions Kosso site?

    I’ve been stalked, harassed and physically accosted by a person who didn’t hide behind anonymous means… so this – not to down play being harassed – just seems like a marketing/publicity stunt to get viral attention. People get emotionally tied to your “story” and want to champion for you – and therefore follow you – as a survivor of harassing/stalking abuse – I did just that, I instantly followed you on Twitter so that I could stay informed about your plight… about your drama. And for what?

    In the end … I still wonder if this is *really* about the TOS.

  46. gary
    May 22, 2008

    what sort of law system allows someone to sue a website for deleting their account after they’ve been using it to harass someone?

  47. Emily H
    May 22, 2008

    I actually run community for a very large social news site (not digg) and deal with this kind of issue daily. While it is true that TOS is generally open to interpretation, most TOS also say that you can be removed from the site at any time. Disclaimer: I have not specifically reviewed the twitter TOS. A user would have no grounds for suing you when you remove them from your site. They may get threatened with a lawsuit or even the ol’ “you are violating my freedom of speech” anthem, but this is absolutely not of concern to a private website deciding that a user is no longer free to post on their service. Freedom of speech is a protection from the government, not from a privately owned website on the internet. This is more a customer service issue than anything else. Twitter is still probably working out the kinks in managing their community (along with their downtime). Managing a large community means you have to piss people off once in a while, but it is a far more publicly defensible position to piss off the guy that is harassing a user, than piss off the user that is being harassed.

  48. Jen
    May 22, 2008

    This is extremely disappointing and rather disturbing. I’ll be following this one.

  49. Struan
    May 22, 2008

    Reblogged your post. This is utterly disgraceful – hope it gets resolved soon. (Reblogged here: http://vitaminbriefcase.tumblr.com/post/35727709/twitter-douchebags-but-riding-close-to-the-line)

  50. CSSquirrel » Blog Archive » Twitter Behaving Badly
    May 22, 2008

    […] However, I’ll explain the essence of it. Twitter user Arial Waldman described recently in her blog the harassment she’s received via that service. Harassment that violates Twitter’s […]