TwitterOver recent weeks there has been a welcome debate on trolling and online abuse. One of the main questions has been – who bears the responsibility of dealing with this reprehensible practice, with many pointing accusing fingers at Twitter.

Is this fair?

Those defending Twitter suggest that requiring Twitter to take action against abusers is akin to holding the Royal Mail responsible for postal pests. Not so. Post is private and sealed, the Royal Mail has no access to the communications. Twitter is comparable to the Royal Mail insomuch as it is a communication service, however, it bears far more relation to a bar or restaurant. It is social media and the key is the word “social”.

Twitter exists to make profit, like any business, and it invites users to enter, converse socially and to help it meet turnover and profit targets using advertising and sponsorship (as opposed to selling food and drink). Just as in ordinary society Twitter users should have complete freedom to do whatever they want … up until the point that their conduct adversely affects another. Just as the drunk who shouts and insults other customers will be ejected from the pub so too the Twitter user who abuses and breaches Twitter’s rules should be ejected from the website. This is exactly what Twitter does. The problem is – once you eject a drunk from a bar he or she can’t get back in, even changing clothes won’t do it. On Twitter “changing clothes” is much easier. Create a new username and – hey presto – you can start all over again.

What Twitter is missing is the ability (or perhaps willingness?) to give victims of abuse a proper opportunity to defend themselves. The UK’s police argue (rightly) that that their resources are stretched. This is the reason that ordinary members of the public who have received death threats, racist or homophobic abuse or harassment have often been turned away from police stations with little more than a sympathetic word or two. The anonymity which Twitter allows means that, unless the police are prepared to intervene, victims have no means of protection.

It is possible to take civil action to prevent harassment or other criminal and civil wrongs but anonymity makes the process long, drawn out and expensive.

Twitter abides by the local laws of the countries in which it chooses to commercially operate (every country except China!) and will abide by a disclosure order which has been properly obtained at court. If a victim has the fortitude and finances to get to this point then they may have enough information to seek an injunction and/or sue the perpetrator. But shouldn’t Twitter make it easier? Why require the time and cost of a court order? Twitter users enter a contract when they sign up for the website – this includes an agreement to abide by the website’s terms and conditions. It would be relatively simple to require users to abide by three simple rules:

(i)            they will provide acceptable form of identification when opening a new account

(ii)          they will not abuse any other user (a clause already in Twitter’s terms and conditions); and

(iii)         they will not breach the law of the country in which they use Twitter

Breach of any of these rules – which is properly adjudicated objectively by Twitter – will result in the disclosure of the identification details to the individual who has been abused, threatened or otherwise harmed.

This is information which Twitter is legally obliged to provide when served with a court order. The suggestion is simply to remove the thousands of pounds of costs and months of jumping through legal loopholes. As matters currently stand only the most wealthy of individuals are in a position to enforce their legal rights against abusers on Twitter. If Twitter is truly a democracy then it should open rights of protection to all.

To be clear – we are not suggesting that Twitter hand over the names of individuals who have been obnoxious or rude. Disclosure should be handled with great care and should be strictly limited (as it is in the courts) to clearly demonstrable examples of serious threats, harassment and otherwise criminal communications. Actions have consequences but, whilst it remains possible to set up an account called @RapeHerNow on Twitter, it would appear that actions do not always have consequences on Twitter.

Freedom of expression goes both ways. An individual cannot claim that they are free and entitled to issue threats publicly online and then, in the next breath, claim that they are entitled to privacy to prevent the disclosure of their identity.

This post originally appeared on the Himsworth Legal Blog and is reproduced with permission and thanks