Twitter: A community or a utility?

by Mathew on May 23, 2008 · 8 comments

I’ve been kind of out of the loop thanks to the mesh 2008 conference, so I’ve missed the furore over Ariel Waldman and her attempts to get Twitter to ban a user that she says has been harassing her. According to her account of the situation on her blog, she tried repeatedly to get Twitter to enforce its own terms of service, which state that users “must not abuse, harass, threaten, impersonate or intimidate other Twitter users.” She emailed back and forth with Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, but he said that the company couldn’t do anything because they were afraid of a lawsuit, and that they were going to review their terms of service, which Jack said were “open to interpretation.”

To complicate matters somewhat, Waldman — who describes herself as a “social media insights consultant” and blogs about art, sex, entertainment and technology at the blog Shake Well Before Use — also happens to be the community manager at Pownce, which could be seen as a direct competitor for Twitter. But she says in an update to her blog that the harassing behaviour and the complaints to Twitter came before she got her current job at Pownce. And in a bizarre twist, a commenter who claims to be Waldman’s mother says that the individual harassing her has been doing so for several years and is mentally unstable.

Waldman eventually started a thread at the customer-service site GetSatisfaction, and Twitter co-founder Biz Stone responded in a comment. Among other things, he said that the account in question had been removed voluntarily by the user in March, and that in any case the activity didn’t breach the terms of service. But the most interesting thing he said was that as far as Twitter was concerned (as pointed out GetSatisfaction thread), the service is “a communication utility, not a mediator of content.” In other words, Twitter wants to be treated the same as a “common carrier” such as a telephone company, which isn’t liable for the content it carries.

This is an understandable point of view to take from a legal standpoint, especially given U.S. laws such as the Communications Decency Act. But does it jibe with the way people treat Twitter? Many people seem to see it as a community. And other online services such as Flickr (as Waldman notes) remove content or ban users behaviour. Why not Twitter? Waldman may be over-reacting to the messages that were posted about her — there’s no way of knowing. And there is an argument to be made that she should just take her lumps and move on; block the user and ignore it. But at the same time, Twitter does seem to be weaseling out of its own terms of service, and that hardly seems kosher.

Update:

As Shelley notes in a comment, Ev Williams of Twitter has responded in a comment on Jeffrey Zeldman’s blog, in which he says that Ariel submitted a total of 13 messages and only one contained her name — making it highly unlikely that anyone would have been able to figure out that the other messages were about her (if they were about her at all). He also denies that the company has any fears about a lawsuit. In any case, he says Twitter doesn’t “have a rule against insulting people or hurting their feelings,” and that “We had to make a judgement call here, as one does in all such cases. This didn’t meet the bar for being banned, in our opinion.” If those facts are correct, I would have to agree.

{ 3 trackbacks }

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{ 5 comments }

Shelley 05.23.08 at 7:43 pm

comment by Ev Williams on this issue at a post by Jeffrey Zeldman.

People have to ask themselves: do they want the Twitter folks to focus on fixing the service? Or catering to the sensitive needs of the dear, little community.

“Oh no, precious dear. Were thou feelings hurt? Let me kiss them, make them better.”

Because lord knows, the rest of the internet is such a polite, and safe place to be.

Daniel Gibbons 05.23.08 at 8:26 pm

OK, I've also had my head down working on a lot of things that have kept me away from the technosphere. I'm straying a little off topic here, but every time I do forget about Twitter, FriendFeed and the rest for a few days, I'm reminded that they are still utterly alien and useless in the real world.

The idea that Twitter is a utility is truly ludicrous in this context. The people for whom it's a productivity tool are living in a bubble in which “productivity” has its own special and hilarious definition. So yes, the argument that it's not a mediator of content is equally ridiculous.

MarinaMartin 05.25.08 at 4:40 am

I don't understand what sort of response people wanted from Twitter. Block a user who already deleted their account three months ago? There's no feasible way for them to even prevent that user from signing up for a new account, short of verifying every new user's social security number. All this situation is doing is giving lots of attention to something that deserves no attention at all.

I wonder what Pownce thinks of this publicity?

EventsListed 07.12.08 at 7:26 am

Interesting Issue Mathew. I know I am late to the party but its never to late to drop your 2 cents in..

“In other words, Twitter wants to be treated the same as a “common carrier” such as a telephone company, which isn’t liable for the content it carries.”

How can they take any other view?

If someone texts an insult to me on my mobile phone, I delete it & I block them. If they continue to do it to a point where I am threatened by their behavior I report them to the police. Not the phone carrier?

Why would anyone assume twitter to be any different?

But then again if I see an advertisement in the newspaper for a property to rent. I visit the property and I rent it.

Months later the balcony collapses due to it being faulty and it is also discovered that it was an illegal structure. Would the news paper who published the add for this dwelling be liable for having introduced me to it should I sustain serious injury?

I mean, had I not read the paper I would not have been introduced to the landlord and not moved into a situation where I was endangered by a faulty, illegal building structure.

Or

As the publisher of the paper are they little more than a carrier for anyone to publish any advertisements in, true or false?

Where is the line drawn?

I think you will find the law would take a view that the paper was liable only if a representative of the paper had actually visited the property and seen first hand that the balcony was faulty and potentially illegal.

If after seeing it and knowing this they still ran the advert they could be deemed liable.

Drawing parallels here if the decision makers at twitter knew the offensive taunts were occurring & refused to act, would they be liable if the recipient of these taunts was caused suffering?

Love to hear others take this one. It's a very interesting topic considering the internet still has international law makers scratching their heads after how many years now.

EventsListed 07.12.08 at 11:26 am

Interesting Issue Mathew. I know I am late to the party but its never to late to drop your 2 cents in..

“In other words, Twitter wants to be treated the same as a “common carrier” such as a telephone company, which isn’t liable for the content it carries.”

How can they take any other view?

If someone texts an insult to me on my mobile phone, I delete it & I block them. If they continue to do it to a point where I am threatened by their behavior I report them to the police. Not the phone carrier?

Why would anyone assume twitter to be any different?

But then again if I see an advertisement in the newspaper for a property to rent. I visit the property and I rent it.

Months later the balcony collapses due to it being faulty and it is also discovered that it was an illegal structure. Would the news paper who published the add for this dwelling be liable for having introduced me to it should I sustain serious injury?

I mean, had I not read the paper I would not have been introduced to the landlord and not moved into a situation where I was endangered by a faulty, illegal building structure.

Or

As the publisher of the paper are they little more than a carrier for anyone to publish any advertisements in, true or false?

Where is the line drawn?

I think you will find the law would take a view that the paper was liable only if a representative of the paper had actually visited the property and seen first hand that the balcony was faulty and potentially illegal.

If after seeing it and knowing this they still ran the advert they could be deemed liable.

Drawing parallels here if the decision makers at twitter knew the offensive taunts were occurring & refused to act, would they be liable if the recipient of these taunts was caused suffering?

Love to hear others take this one. It's a very interesting topic considering the internet still has international law makers scratching their heads after how many years now.

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