The general manager of Twitter UK, Tony Wang, sent a series of tweets Saturday, apologizing to women who have experienced abuse on its site.

The social media company also posted an update to its blog Saturday morning, outlining changes it plans to make to its policies.

The developments come after UK lawmaker Stella Creasy and feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez were the targets of rape threats on Twitter, sparking a very public backlash against the social media company. Arrests were later made in connection with that investigation.

Several female journalists also received bomb threats on Twitter, including Guardian columnist Hadley Freeman, Independent columnist Grace Dent, Emma Barnett of The Daily Telegraph and Europe editor of Time magazine Catherine Mayer.

The threats triggered a petition calling for Twitter to modify its policies and make it easier to report abuse, and some called for boycotts.  Creasy took it a step further though, calling the threats a “hate crime.”

From the BBC:

[Journalist Caitlin] Moran has called for a 24-hour Twitter boycott on 4 August to try to get Twitter to come up with an “anti-troll policy”.

Labour MP Ms Creasy said: “This is not a technology crime – this is a hate crime. If they were doing it on the street, the police would act.”

She told the BBC she had been chasing Twitter for the past 24 hours but they had not yet responded to her.

“I am absolutely furious with Twitter that they are not engaging in this at all,” she said.

I have to say, as someone who has been the target of more extreme abuse and threats on Twitter, I do agree to some extent that it should be easier – perhaps more efficient – to report more serious incidents on Twitter.  More specifically, and based on personal experience, I think Twitter could be more responsive to serious threats and longstanding patterns of abuse that are committed by habitual offenders.  Twitter sometimes doesn’t respond at all, and if it does, it simply recommends the matter be referred to law enforcement.  I’m not sure about the solution, though.

Serious incidents are typically reported by victims to law enforcement authorities, but those authorities are often woefully ill equipped to deal with such issues.  (I had one officer admit to me once, “I have no idea what Twitter is, how Twitter works, I’ve never even been on there”).  So I don’t think it hurts for Twitter to at least review its policies and try to do more to help targets of serious abuse to work with the proper resources to address the most serious of offenses on its network.  And to be clear, we’re talking about the incidents more serious than “block and move on.”

However, I think that referring to such things as a “hate crime” sets a very dangerous precedent.  I don’t particularly view this as an issue limited only to women – men are also just as much victims of serious threats and repeated harassment.  I simply don’t make the distinction or place more value on women over men when it comes to online abuse.  And we’re talking about speech, not an action.

This is a slippery slope.  Where does Twitter draw the line between actionable abuse and free speech? And do we really want them spending all their time going through “report abuse” reports?  (I’ll add that the “report abuse” function has the potential to be abused itself, just as the spamblock feature has been).

Sometimes we have to tolerate speech we don’t like.  As many of us often say, the answer is more speech, not less.

But there are some areas that I believe aren’t so grey – direct threats of rape, planting bombs and death are clearly things that shouldn’t be tolerated, and Twitter’s policies do already cover this.  I think the issue is one that is probably more a matter of how law enforcement, not just Twitter, is equipped to address.  And perhaps the policies that Twitter reconsiders could also include providing further guidance on differentiating up front what constitutes something that should be handled by law enforcement authorities.

It’s a delicate issue, when you’re dealing with online speech.  As with many other things in the age of new media, we as a society are still working out proper balance between safety and protecting a civil liberty.  And there can be unintended consequences.


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