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. Max Hawkins
    May 22, 2008

    The only thing I like about Twitter is it is small, and it can be accessed in loads of different ways. But the downtimes and this just make me want to go to something else. Come on Twitter, shape up!

  2. Ariel Waldman
    May 22, 2008

    @MsK I have talked to the Confessions site in the past and they were more responsive in banning the IP address and deleting the messages. I didn’t include them in this post because they were not the issue. The harassing user was using a different account before harassments started coming in on the Confession account.

  3. Clintus
    May 22, 2008

    Bad form indeed.

  4. A joke?
    May 22, 2008

    If you knew people at Pownce during this incident, you are already not impartial to your “article”.

  5. desu
    May 22, 2008

    when will people learn???
    IT IS A PRIVATE WEBSITE, they don’t have to enforce squat if they don’t feel like it. You don’t like it? you’re free to take your business elsewhere… oh that’s right you don’t pay jack for the service.

  6. Leonwestbrook
    May 22, 2008

    I’m sorry. Just because someone called you a “cunt” doesn’t mean its harassment.

    I’m a black guy who does videos on youtube and sometimes get N-word bombs being dropped on me. I report them to youtube, but really what is the use?

    Twitter was right about this. Unless they were posting your personal contact info like your phone number or address, it isn’t’ a bannable offense.

    Bad comments are all over the internet, its the nature of the beast. Block the person and get over it.

  7. Kelvin Yong
    May 22, 2008

    I’ve tweet about this… and real shame to see Twitter isn’t as responsive as they meant to be from their TOS… real slack, real useless… real coward!

  8. Borob
    May 22, 2008

    @Arial: you must be kidding, why don’t you sue them?

    @fsda: the right of free speech does not give you the right to say anything you like. It gives you responsibilities too! To take care of other people! Just ask Theo van Gogh…

  9. Emanuel
    May 22, 2008

    I’m glad they’re not banning these users.

    Do not every think you deserve the right to not be offended; otherwise there is no such thing as freedom of speech.

  10. Joey
    May 22, 2008

    I signed up for a twitter account and have yet to really use it…after this I will decline. Not like Myspace or any other social sites really have it all figured out, most of them have censored unnecessarily or banned people without good reasons, but who needs another one, especially when they don’t even have the sack to attempt control over their users irresponsibility.

  11. Peter
    May 22, 2008

    I’d think this makes Twitter a party to the harassment, and subject to legal action just as the harasser.

    I wonder how Jack’s view would change if he was the victim of this harassment, instead of merely facilitating someone else’s harassment of his customer.

  12. robb
    May 22, 2008

    wow, major media is starting to pick up on this. i bet it’s gonna hurt more than a piddly little lawsuit. what a douche.

  13. nick
    May 22, 2008

    Someone called you a cunt? OHMYGOD. ITS THE END OF THE FUCKING WORLD. Live with it.

  14. Television Spy
    May 22, 2008

    That’s quite sad actually, I’m sure with enough pressure they will do something.

  15. Nestor
    May 22, 2008

    You should sue them for not taking action. Then ‘Jack’ would feel pretty stupid..

  16. root
    May 22, 2008

    Why does Twitter even post a ToS if they don’t intend to enforce it? They probably thought that ToS was some tool that could protect them from being sued (kind of a “we’re not guilty of anything you do here” contract), but didn’t add any specific requirements on their part.
    I had decided to give Twitter a try this week, but on the same day closed my account. After reading this, I’m glad I did.


    @nick: it’s not about being called anything, it’s about a service provider not following their own ToS.

  17. nick
    May 22, 2008

    Hahah. Sue them? Are you stupid? No. Probably just American. That’s the answer to everything in life, it seems. Face it. There are some people in life who don’t like you. If the internet bothers you that much, GTFO. THIS IS LIFE. YOU WON’T SUCCEED BY BEING A SISSY.

  18. Joe User
    May 22, 2008

    Nobody, but absolutely nobody, sues twitter-like sites for having their accounts nuked.
    This is just absolute bullshit on their part. Either than, or you haven’t managed to
    get past the tier-1 morons to someone with half a clue. If they truly have
    “tasked” their “lawyers” then someone at twitter has actually talked to an
    attorney and the attorney must have told them that they were full of shit.
    That they continue to be full of shit indicates that nobody has talked to an
    actual trained attorney.

  19. nick
    May 22, 2008

    @root: “not following their own ToS”? Because it explicitly states that if you are a bit rude, they will be forced to immediately ban you? No. The user is not following their ToS. But they aren’t required to do anything about it.

  20. Joseph Hunkins
    May 22, 2008

    Ariel – as the community manager of Pownce you must have dealt with similar situations. Are you sure Pownce would ban this type of abuser?

  21. Tina
    May 22, 2008

    If someone is beating you up do you stand there and take it? I should hope not. So, if you are being “harrassed” so bad, why would you continue using the same name & site? Isn’t that being a glutton for punishment? Twitter is free – you are an invited guest using the service, not a rightful owner.

  22. Parky
    May 22, 2008

    Oops. I set up the wrong name on the Twitter Account. Can you please point to http://www.twitter.com/wesupportariel ? Thanks.

  23. Michelle / chelpixie
    May 22, 2008

    A couple more notes to add:

    A) @dayngr dealt with the same issues a few weeks ago, Twitter basically blew her off too.

    B) Twitter can and will ban someone without fear of lawsuits because they did, ban @foulbastard.

    This isn’t the first time that it’s happened, it’s likely not to be the last. I just hope that Ariel can get Twitter to take action so no one else will suffer from being harassed.

  24. Twitter and responsibility at j4mie dot org
    May 22, 2008

    […] Waldman claims she was harassed on Twitter, and Twitter refused to ban the user responsible. This has caused a huge outcry across […]

  25. Zany
    May 22, 2008

    I laughed my pants out reading this story … it’s almost too sci-fi to be true ….. a website scared to take actions although it has the TOS on his side.

    Twitter … you suck big time if this is the actual case.

  26. Jay
    May 22, 2008

    @fsda and others claiming free speech.

    Thomas is correct. The first amendment outlines the government’s relationship with its citizens.

    Last time I checked, Twitter was not the U.S. Government, though maybe like Facebook and Myspace their giving all our info to them anyway…

    So, please, if you’re going to claim free speech, at least have the decency to read the Bill of Rights.

    As to whether or not a word in and of itself is harassment, I believe the courts favor context, which is to say that getting called a cunt by your lover is not harassment. But, conversely, being called a cunt by someone who is hell bent on maligning you can be seen as harassment.

    Ariel strikes as a woman more than capable of making this distinction.

    Which is more than I can say for some of the men – and a few women – commenting here.
    Same for the N-bomb.

  27. Jay
    May 22, 2008

    My apologies.

    The sentence, “Same for the N-bomb” should have followed this paragraph.

    As to whether or not a word in and of itself is harassment, I believe the courts favor context, which is to say that getting called a cunt by your lover is not harassment. But, conversely, being called a cunt by someone who is hell bent on maligning you can be seen as harassment.

  28. Jeremy Franklin
    May 22, 2008

    This could turn into a big problem with Twitter. I do not see a possible mass exodus from the service because most people are sheep and have no spine. I am glad to see Ariel is not. I know I don’t want to leave Twitter, but they should at least honor their TOS. If not on the wording of the TOS, at least on a moral ground of civility. Dissent and heated discussion is cool, but such words are not.

  29. Andrew
    May 22, 2008

    what a bunch of pricks at twitter

  30. Alex
    May 22, 2008

    Awww poor baby – why is it always women posting this stuff about being horribly offended by online trash talking? You always have the option to ignore someone, do that instead of making your insecurity everyone else’s problem.

  31. Patrick Cooper
    May 22, 2008

    Cyndy: “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.”

    Maybe, but I’m not so sure. Loren Feldman is constantly harassing people from his personal account (1938media), and they haven’t deactivated that.

    I suspect they’re just following the “impersonation” restriction, but not the “harassment” one.

  32. Dominic Jones
    May 22, 2008

    Ariel, Thank you for standing up and speaking out. Twitter’s management have no moral compass. And as the father of a you girl, I cannot use a service that has no respect for victims of bullies.

  33. Brad
    May 22, 2008

    I’ll be honest, this really just seems like someone whining that a service won’t fix something you should really do yourself. The banning harassment you have sighted isn’t much. Just ignore it, your email is on your website, i doubt the fact someone posted it on twitter makes a difference as its already very public. Maybe you where that person who runs to the teacher whenever you heard a bad word back in school.

  34. Bob
    May 22, 2008

    Wow, what a rotten response. My advice to you is to try and get some publicity. I’d attempt to get in touch with Leo Laporte and/or Kevin Rose. Leo, in particular, is always going on about twitter. And, I’d bet that a good share of twitter’s customers listen to his podcasts. I’d bet that a few negative words from him would get their attention. Trouble is, he’s probably always fielding complaints from people who feel they’ve been done wrong by a tech company.

  35. John
    May 22, 2008

    We could launch a massive counter attack! Give us the users name, and we’ll show them what social networking really is! Everyone with a twitter account can non-stop pester the person until they drop their account. Then all of us will quit using Twitter to show them the power of their users. Companies who don’t care about their customers don’t deserve to exist.

  36. YoYo
    May 22, 2008

    Are you a cunt?

  37. Dawn
    May 22, 2008

    Heartening to know that you spoke out, kept records, and was/are proactive in maintaining your dignity. Good for You!

  38. Josh
    May 22, 2008

    I was thinking about trying out Twitter. Not anymore, why would I? Sorry for your troubles.

  39. Anonymous
    May 22, 2008

    I say post this person name/email and let the internet do the rest.

  40. Ryan MF
    May 22, 2008

    So I read about 1/3 of the comments before I couldn’t keep myself from scrolling down to write this. I apologize if I’m repeating things that have been said in the bottom 2/3.

    Issues of legality and morality aside, Twitter’s response to this is completely baffling. Some of you have attempted to make the argument that Twitter assessed that the potential legal fees involved in fighting a hypothetical lawsuit wouldn’t be worth the ban. REALLY?

    It wouldn’t be worth keeping Ariel from writing about this, when she is connected enough in this community to spur EVERY other talking head (or blogging head) to parrot it and push it up the TechMeme ranks? That’s not a concern when Twitter is already engaged in a full-blown PR meltdown?

    Or how about the threats (well intended as they may be) of techno-vigilantism, with individuals offering their services to hack Twitter’s DB and exact retribution on the harasser? Yes, I realize most threats of this nature are empty, but there’s bound to be someone out there who IS capable of such an act, and maybe they read this post, and *maybe* they’re fans of Ariel and think this guy’s an asshole. Twitter shouldn’t be at all concerned about intruders digging around their system when they can’t keep the damn thing up for 48 hours on its own?

    And after pulling in $15m in new capital, does anyone honestly think that Twitter JUST CANNOT SPARE a few grand to *MAYBE* deal with some anonymous pest who *MIGHT* file a lawsuit for being banned, assuming that such a troll would have the sophistication or funds to accomplish such a task?

    I’m sorry, but this just doesn’t make a damn bit of sense.

    Ariel, I hope this comes to an acceptable resolution for you soon. And for all of us, I hope Twitter finds a way to get their act together.

  41. Nathan
    May 22, 2008

    On behalf of all other human beings who aren’t bozos and losers and half-wits like YoYo and Brad and all the rest of wankers (mostly male), I would sincerely like to apologize that you have to put up with this crap.

    To the boys at twitter, you can’t run twitter properly and you certainly can’t make good decisions. What exactly are you good at.

    If I was one of the VC’s I’d be looking to replace some faces there.

  42. Nathan
    May 22, 2008

    Who are the VCs? I’d like to let them know what kind of dorks they’ve just thrown $15 million at.

  43. debutaunt
    May 22, 2008

    repost my other comment here as well. Btw, how does *anyone* aside from the Twitter employees know that Ariel didn’t just fake this whole thing to attract attention to her or her blog? Her blog is a little more racy and NSFW, so why not up her hits? Twitter knows who this person is via IP address (it was easy enough for me to find the profile) and based on their TOS, the profile could have been deleted solely for the many spam tweets (e.g. free ringtones, pharma ads, etc) I’m not like out to get Ariel or anything and I’ve had my own stalker or ten in my internet life, but it would be easy enough to fakeastalker. I don’t always believe the hype. Besides, the profile has 750 people following it. I am a newb and recognized a few names. What does that say about the community if they are following such lame and disgusting tweets? I hate e-stalking. But if you give a story/stalker attention, they love it. I would have just kept after Twitter, but not been so public about it. But that’s just my style – I don’t feed trolls anymore. P.S. As far as an employer googling her name and finding the rants, um, have you all *seen* her blog. It’s pretty um… sexual? I am not a prude, but an employer can see that the rants are stupid and harassing, but what will they think about her blog?

  44. Who Said Web 2.0 is Safe? « NinjaRadio
    May 22, 2008

    […] Twitter refuses to uphold terms of service Posted by Ninja Filed in Web 2.0 ·Tags: cyber harrassement […]

  45. Twitter may have more serious issues than its downtime » VentureBeat
    May 22, 2008

    […] While we crack a lot of jokes about Twitter’s uptime and go on about its potential valuation, it’s easy to forget that as with many communication tools, there is the potential for real, troubling issues. One of those came to light today when Twitter user Ariel Waldman spoke out the harassment she is receiving from other users of the service. […]

  46. muaythai
    May 22, 2008

    You’re in a bad situation and obviously not getting much help. I can’t read all the replies here, but I can’t believe no one has suggested simply going after your stalker. Seriously, if this was happening to my wife or one of my friends, I’d be going to this guys house with a friend and a baseball bat. I know it doesn’t solve the greater problem and yes, it involves a little more than sitting behind a computer but hey, I guess that’s why I live in Oakland and not SF ;-)

  47. Jon Husband
    May 22, 2008

    VV Says:
    May 22nd, 2008 at 1:52 pm
    Someone calling you a cunt isn’t harassment. Cunt. :p

    Repeated instances is .. it poisons the environment. There’s lots of case law. Look it up.

  48. Steve
    May 22, 2008

    I think I know why you are crying about Twitter. You are a “community manager for Pownce” and would love to see Twitter fail.

  49. Allison
    May 22, 2008

    Wow, I can’t believe there are people who are actually defending Twitter. I think Twitter ought to live up to their Terms of Service, otherwise they never should have promised it. It’s not like you’re forcing them to do something – they said themselves they don’t like the behavior and now they’re going back on their word! I love the Twitter service, but between the service interruption and now this, I really, really dislike the people running it. I hope the stalker eventually leaves you alone, but I really hope Twitter gets its act together in the event that something like this – but more serious, like a threat of personal harm – should happen again.

  50. Duane
    May 22, 2008

    Well, it’s obviously not cool you had to deal with that. But considering anyone can sign up for a twitter account at any time, what do you think the end result of banning that person would have been? Don’t you think they just would have signed up again and started over?

    Twitter isn’t a large company, so it’s pretty hard to police millions of users, a good portion of which probably use words such as cunt. I assume you blocked the person, in which case you personally shouldn’t be bothered any more. I believe freedom of speech protects them (in public forums) from voicing their opinions, in so long as they do not spread hate.