Turtle-catching, Indiana Jones and gummy bears. These are the sorts of topics that are being discussed on my Twitter home page right now; proof-positive that I'm not the only one who thinks that the service's 140 character communiqués serve as the perfect method of delivery for the most trivial thoughts. Unfortunately, not everyone uses Twitter for such lighthearted means–and no, I'm not talking about folks who live-twit Senate hearings. This past week, Twitter found itself having to answer some tough questions about the policing of social media networks and the resulting conversation has implications for anyone who uses such web-based services.
It all started when Engadget columnist and Pownce community manager Ariel Waldman found herself the target of online harassment via her Twitter and Flickr accounts. According to a post on her personal blog, Waldman started receiving offensive comments on Twitter last June, some of which contained her full name and email address. She reported the user who had posted the comments to Twitter's community manager, who responded in turn by removing the offensive comments from the public timeline, though no disciplinary action was taken against the user.
Unsurprisingly, the harassment continued for the remainder of the year, with Waldman intermittently reporting offensive tweets to the community manager. When, in early 2008, the comments “escalated to a level that could no longer be ignored,” Waldman fired off an email to Twitter asserting that the harassment was in violation of the site's terms of service (TOS), which explicitly states that users “must not abuse, harass, threaten, impersonate or intimidate other Twitter users.” Twitter finally responded and while the company stated that the user in question was “admittedly mean,” it declined to take any further action, on the grounds that the user was “not doing anything illegal.”
The disconnect between Waldman and Twitter seems to lie in the two parties' interpretation of the service's TOS, which states that users must not “harass” each other. Admittedly, “harass” is a difficult word to define and as Ars Technica points out, Twitter doesn't have any legal liability to remove offensive posts or users, thanks to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Regardless, the company does have the power to enforce its own TOS and we've seen plenty of other online services do just that with little hesitation. In fact, when Waldman contacted Flickr with similar complaints, the photo service responded by immediately banning the user in question and removing all of the offending posts.
Now, here's where things get interesting: Twitter has openly stated that its TOS is heavily based on Flickr's. In borrowing another site's terms of service, Twitter may have failed to consider what those terms really mean and what should constitute a violation of those terms. Ars points us to a blog comment where Twitter co-founder Evan Williams essentially admits as much. “[W]e probably shouldn't have borrowed Flickr's TOS. Like a lot of startups, we threw something up early on and didn't give it a lot of thought. Our bad.”
This isn't the first time that we've seen a Web 2.0 service with a seemingly cobbled-together TOS and it probably won't be the last. To Twitter's credit, the company plans to review its terms of service and intends to “make it more clear what actions we will and won't take,” in the words of co-founder Biz Stone. Still, you'd think that a high-profile company like Twitter wouldn't wait for a public debacle like this to get its TOS in order, especially a company that's valued at some $80 million with over $20 million in venture capital backing. Sure, Twitter is, as it often argues, “a communication utility, not a mediator of content.” However, that doesn't exempt the company from knowing and enforcing its own terms of service. While Twitter certainly does not have to assume the role of content cop, it does have to make clear to its users where the boundaries lie–and what the consequences are for crossing them.