July 29, 2013 | Jim Killock

Twitter abuse: let’s debate what the police are doing

Calls for abuse buttons on Twitter may help a bit, but we should look to the police for law enforcement.

Police, Brierley Hill, cc-by-sa West Midlands PoliceRape threats are vile. They are also illegal. Harassment is also an offence. The recent spate of such threats against Caroline Criado-Perez resulted in a change.org call for a Twitter 'abuse' button.

Now that somebody has been arrested for threatening Caroline Criado-Perez, the debate should shift to where it should have started. How should the police react to complaints of online harassment and threats of violence?

From a campaigning standpoint, focusing on Twitter seems to make sense. Twitter have a customer base and reputation they need to protect. Rape threats are unacceptable, and Twitter will be under immense pressure to take action. Inaction looks like protecting the bottom line. People will understand that campaigning can have an effect in raising the issue of online threats and abuse. Labour have joined in with Yvette Cooper accusing Twitter's response of being 'inadequate'.

Several campaigners speaking in favour of a new 'abuse button' said they had focused on Twitter because the police had failed them.

Kate Smurthwaite said that she had on some occasions approached the police, who advised her to ignore the behaviour, or come back if she had any information about who it was. Caroline Criado-Perez also reported that she had complained to the police, but did not think they would act. Hence the focus on Twitter.

It is a common complaint I have heard even from MPs who have suffered online abuse.

Their complaints to the police were about criminal acts, beyond the point where free speech is at issue. The actions that Twitter can take are limited, and truly, 'inadequate'. Twitter could at best delete an account of an abuser, leaving them unpunished and able to set up a new account and carry on abusing. They might pass information to the police: but this could easily lack context and would be prone to errors of judgement.

Depending on the volume of complaints, abuse buttons would use automated sifting techniques. Thus they could be prone to abuse, or at the very least, mistakes. This may not mean that they are irrelevant, but they may not be as useful as is hoped.

We should worry if we make companies the main source of 'redress' for lawbreaking. From copyright through to libel, they are often badly placed to make fair judgements. Legal risk carries greatest weight rather than justice for someone complaining or complained about when a company takes an action. Companies making judgements can be a kind of privatisation of law enforcement that removes pressure on the police to deal with online offences.

After all, if a company deals with the problem statements, why shouldn't the police assume the problem has been solved and deal with something "more serious"?

There is a parallel between the proposals Cameron pushed last week, trying to blame search engines for inaction on paedophilia, and ISPs for failing parents. Even if companies can take some steps (and as difficult and complicated though that may be) the most important initiatives are in the hands of the state. For child abuse, policing is preferable to giving up and asking companies to take steps to obscure access to content, whether by search or 'web blocking'. In the case of children avoiding pornography, effective education and discussion are much more critical than whether ISPs sign up to "nudge censorship". 

In the case of victims of harassment, the police need to investigate, arrest and prosecute offenders. No doubt, after a few cases, people would start to avoid crossing a line. Just as importantly, it could create confidence among the victims that their complaint might be dealt with sympathetically by the police.

So far, incidents do seem to be resolved when the police have them drawn to their attention though mass media and online campaigning. This is not acceptable, however, if equally threatening situations are not taken seriously, purely because of a lack of public attention.

Once Twitter have provided better reporting tools, campaigners should focus back on the police, rather than starting from a point of view where they regard them as a lost cause.

Comments (30)

  1. stripe:
    Jul 29, 2013 at 12:37 PM

    why when I made a comment on the above topic, was my comment deleted?

  2. Veetee:
    Jul 29, 2013 at 12:38 PM

    Hi Jim, interesting article, but under the law, how is one supposed to differentiate between rape threats and (say) making a sick joke about April Jones? If one is an arrestable offense because it is distressing, then so is the other - as far as the law is concerned, there is no difference between one and the other in that they are both distressing, so there has to be a mitigating factor that decides which side of the threshold each goes. And a solid and clear threshold - no grey area! - is needed to give people certainty about acceptable speech . What in your opinion the difference between a rape threat and that joke that would put them on either side of the prosecution threshold? What about something in between, such as (say) regular swearing? Which side of the line should that fall on, as it's abuse and possibly bound to be distressing?

  3. stripe:
    Jul 29, 2013 at 12:41 PM

    2 comments deleted now, what happened to my rights????

  4. Jim Killock:
    Jul 29, 2013 at 12:48 PM

    @stripe, I don't know what’s gone wrong with your comments, but they haven’t been deleted as far as I can tell. Sorry about that.

    @veetee, threats and harassment are crimes, as it stands. Grossly offensive remarks can also be a crime - under s127A of the Communications Act - but this is much more controversial. Why should mere offensiveness be a crime? Threats and attempts to intimidate or harm an individual are where the line should (and generally is) drawn.

  5. Jennie Kermode:
    Jul 29, 2013 at 12:57 PM

    What this comes down to is money. Campaigns aimed at companies provide a useful distraction for politicians. We don't need increased means of identifying problems nearly so much as we need the means to process those reports already made. The truth is that, for all the soundbites, police work aimed at countering child abuse and violence against women is chronically underfunded. As a society, we need to stop passing the buck and make a real commitment to changing this.

  6. Nick Drew:
    Jul 29, 2013 at 01:06 PM

    @ Veetee - the Public Order Act 1986 (sections on threatening behaviour) seem to me to be good enough in establishing "a solid and clear threshold". To my mind, the comparison with unpleasant jokes and swearing which you're making isn't all that relevant in this context. Which is not to say that we don't need to have a debate on what we're free to say or otherwise on Twitter - just that I would have thought that an actual *threat* is a very different class of abuse.

  7. Veetee:
    Jul 29, 2013 at 01:22 PM

    @Jim, Nick that's the point I'm raising - there needs to be a debate as to precisely what the difference is and why that difference determines culpability. Offensiveness, specifically the sort of abuse that Tom Daley received, could be argued as intimidating (and an attempt) by its distressing nature, and if done so would be considered in the same thing (albeit to a a lesser degree) as the intimidation that rape threats can produce, and could fall foul of S127's intimidating limb. I think there even have been cases where sick jokes were prosecuted under 'intimidating' or even 'menacing'! What I'm saying is that the practical consequences of offensiveness could, in some circumstances have similarities to that of rape threats and the intimidating limb could end up catching offensive behaviour too if we don't have that debate and ask if the laws are a little too woolly.

  8. Jim Killock:
    Jul 29, 2013 at 01:47 PM

    @Veetee Yes, Section 127A definitely muddies the waters, as its test does not require an actual victim, but a generalised, highly disapproving public. We’ve listed many of the cases you mention here:


  9. James:
    Jul 29, 2013 at 01:47 PM

    @Veetee there's a problem with what you want that basically comes down to this: if you want a clear an unambiguous definition of what does or does not constitute free speak then by the very encapsulation of that definition the speech is no longer free. To know exactly what is or isn't permissible to say at any one time is Orwellian in the extreme

  10. stripe:
    Jul 29, 2013 at 02:35 PM

    Ive tried a third and final time without success, strange how my thoughts on the above will not post
    but these messages will

  11. Jim Killock:
    Jul 29, 2013 at 02:52 PM

    @stripe Why don't use keep your message on your clipboard; and if you continue to have problems, post to us directly by email? Then maybe we can see why?

  12. stripe:
    Jul 29, 2013 at 07:20 PM

    twitter is nothing but a meat market, harvesting peoples information to sell to others, you are their product

    if twitter are not protecting their members, they should be prosecuted or closed down, (we cant as they do not come under UK law)
    If twitter wanted to ban someone, they would just have to run a check on the ip address and ban it, if it was a rotating ip address they would just have to contact the isp and sort it that way, even banning the total isp. but as they are in the data mining business, they want as many members as possible. More Members=More Profit

    if someone did feel uneasy why not use the block function to prevent any more messages coming from that source before threats were made?
    https://support.twitter.com/entries/117063-how-to-block-users-on-twitter (you cant even do this in the real world)
    a little bit of knowledge and hopefully this would not have happened

    the Internet is a truly global community, a place to share ideas and work on projects with people from all over the globe, which should be free from government intervention, and people should realize this is a different world before going on line
    if rules are to be put in place regarding the prosecution of people, why just the UK? if someone from some other part of the world had committed the same offense what would have happened? nothing because as much as they would like the British police/government do not control or have any jurisdiction over the Internet its users do. (no matter how many laws or restrictions they make to try and show they are in control)

    as with any real community you treat people how you would like to be treat. (with good manners and respect) but just like in the real world you get people who think the rules/laws don't apply to them, just like our M.P's, and they get a rude awakening when they realize that most people on the Internet will not tolerate such behavior.

    when will people realize that proactive education about how to stay safe on the net. and not reactive ineffective legislation is the answer?
    It will not come from government as they are more interested in playing at politics than actually helping people, or making this country a better place for all.
    It is up to us to educate them about what a great resource and opportunity the Internet is to bring the whole world together and how their meddling is putting it at risk.

  13. Jim Killock:
    Jul 29, 2013 at 08:35 PM

    @stripe Glad you got that posted in the end!

  14. Frank Fisher:
    Jul 30, 2013 at 08:36 AM

    Sorry, I think this is very poor. The word left out of this article and the word missing from your Newsnight contribution last night was "credible". Why assume someone wasn't really going to blow up Nottingham airport, but assume someone really is going to rape and murder? To appease a hysterical lobby who hail from a political direction that habitually seeks to label dissent as 'hate speech', and then criminalises it, you appear happy to accept at face value all allegations. You're actually encouraging Twitter to put in place a blunt mechanism to give the mob power to silence and exclude all views they disapprove of.

    Terrible misjudgment by ORG.

  15. Jim Killock:
    Jul 30, 2013 at 09:52 AM

    @Frank Fisher Sorry you feel that way. I agree that 'credible' is important when the police decide whether someone is threatening someone, but harassment offences are rather different. Harassment I think means consistently targeting someone with abuse in order to intimidate or threaten.

    The people, mostly women, who complaining I think range across a spectrum, from those who’ve received bullying remarks that would not pass a criminal test of harassment, through those who are consistently targeted and may, through to people who’ve received attention which has manifested itself beyond that in the physical world, and certainly seems credible.

    A number of women who have large Twitter followings are complaining because their complaints are of harassment or threats, but haven’t been dealt with by the police. Instead now we hear the police ask that Twitter enforce the law, rather than them.

    The point for ORG I believe is that the police are better suited to making judgements about who to pursue in the courts than Twitter is; and Twitter cannot enforce the law, only any community policy it has. While there can be a role for this, Twitter will find it hard to 'ban' people, or stop them from targeting people. This could be dangerous, and it is certainly a failure of the police to offer proper protection when it is genuinely needed.

  16. stripe:
    Jul 30, 2013 at 12:47 PM

    @ Jim, Sorry I think you have made a mistake
    the police are only there to enforce the law (fairly i hope) gather evidence and to charge people when proven criminal offenses have been committed.
    then it is only the CPS that has the power to make judgments on who to peruse in court (in criminal cases I think)

    I have discussed the above topic in general terms (obviously in case of affecting the ongoing case) with a couple of serving police officers and a magistrate. All 3 of them came back with a similar response. (after the usual we have no power over what happens on the Internet response)

    Did the person concerned take reasonable steps to protect themselves, read twitters terms and conditions, and find out about what protection was available on that site (the users responsibility) did they research what problems other people had with the site to find out what the site was like (again the users responsibility)
    were they were happy with what they read, and followed any advice given?
    If the above steps were carried out then the person made an informed choice when entering the site fully aware of any risks they might encounter,
    the authorities cannot be held responsible for people carrying out actions under their own free will (fully understanding the risks) placing themselves in an environment where they may find it distressing.

    just thought the above views would be interesting to share

  17. stripe:
    Jul 30, 2013 at 02:34 PM

    @Jm Killock
    Sorry I thought you were referring to a normal member of the public being abused, not someone that is very Internet savvy and knows how to stay safe on line that uses the Internet as a tool to promote not only her irrelevant causes (a £5 note is a £5 note whoever's picture is on it) and promote her own self-serving on-line media presence.
    I honestly thought this site was to help all of the British public have a voice, not just the ones who see "activist" as a career choice, rather than using activism as it should be used to enable a better country for all, regardless of whatever sex,race,religion,politics or beliefs, not just a small group that fit in with their "criteria"
    It is people like that, that has prevented my family from carrying on traditions we have observed for 100's of years, because they didn't think it was correct and campaigned parliament to make laws that now makes my family's way of life illegal.
    it both saddens and sickens me, that in the 21st century such small minded bigots still exist,

  18. Frank Fisher:
    Jul 30, 2013 at 03:49 PM

    @Jim - "people who’ve received attention which has manifested itself beyond that in the physical world, and certainly seems credible" - okay, and what percentage of the complaining group might this refer to? 1 or 2% perhaps at most? Do you have instances? And *still* in those cases, the police refused to act? I'm not saying the police wouldn't do that - I recall standing next to the organiser of a bike rally in the north east as he begged police officers to come onto the site to deal with rampaging Hells Angels - "there are more of you than there are of them, you sort it out" were the sergeant's exact words. So I don't doubt that the police will shirk their role if they can. But it seems to me that ORG is shirking a role too. The country is full of people who point at the internet and say "something must be done" - it's depressing to see ORG agreeing.

    Last night I would have focussed on the scale of the problem - tiny. The impact of the problem - tiny. The general impact on 'victims' of the problem - generally minor. And the impact *if they utilised the existing options open to them on Twitter* - zilch. Put that against the chilling impact of every single post being monitored, every single post potentially being reported by anyone, not just a recipient.

    I can't tell you what your views should be Jim but I can't see the value in ORG if it's unwilling to swim against the generally repressive tide. Can't imagine the EFF meekly agreeing with John Carr..

  19. stripe:
    Jul 30, 2013 at 05:02 PM

    @Frank Fisher, (stormin the castle? what a small world) I still suffer from the injuries I sustained there, while the police watched from afar. I even contacted the local MP afterwards (my MP) to find out why the police had not acted, and was accused of making it up, as it never happened, it was just a case of people rowdily enjoying themselves, wish I had known that then.

    I wonder what the EFF would do? I will contact them and ask, yes they have the funding for all the legal challenges, but they may know of other methods that may work in our situation. and we have to try to protect our Internet as no one else will.

  20. Frank Fisher:
    Jul 30, 2013 at 07:05 PM

    @stripe - blimey yes, Storming the Castle, 94 or 95 I guess. I worked for AWoL at the time, you might remember it.

  21. Alan:
    Jul 31, 2013 at 12:25 AM

    Pedantically speaking isn't it for the CPS to decide not the police ?

    IMHO the fundamental problem in all that is going on from giving gardeners police powers to asking internet providers to dish out "justice" instead of the police doing it is a systematic attempt by governments of both shades to turn policing into a minimum wage de-skilled business. They dream of a world where a rape complaint is procesed by a phone monkey in India to a script for £1.50/case and "retribution" is automated and outside of the legal system.

    The real questions are

    "Why is the government trying to cut funding to things that clearly need funding in the short term ?"

    "Why don't the *police* have an easy to use abuse reporting button ?"

    "Why are the police trying to fob their job off on Twitter, Google and ISPs none of whom have any power to do much about it that isn't tokenism and laughed at by the offenders ?"

    There is a process of education needed here - one of getting people used to the idea that twitter and friends are not magical anonymous spaces for hate speech and that if you behave in a deeply threatening manner then you are going to have to explain to your mum why there's a policeman outside the door.

    Yes there are boundaries to figure out, yes the CPS made a complete hash of it in a few cases, but that is part of the learning process. We have new guidelines but the real story is that the police are not actually taking on the cases and dealing with them, and the government is not funding the infrastructure so they can do the job efficiently.


  22. Mark Pack:
    Jul 31, 2013 at 08:37 AM

    I think great care needs to be taken before concluding that the impact is "minor" in the way Frank says above. For example, just as with a mugging the problem isn't only the direct victim but also the wider intimidation of a community due to other people fearing they could be the next victim, so with this sort of online threats - it's not just about the person they are immediately directed at, it's also about the intimidation of others who fear they too could be the next on the receiving end. (And as with fear of offline crime too, just because not all those fears are well grounded doesn't mean they are all over the top and should just be ignored.)

  23. Frank Fisher:
    Jul 31, 2013 at 09:19 AM

    @markpack >>> "it's also about the intimidation of others who fear they too could be the next on the receiving end."

    But this works both ways.Ill defined charges of 'harassment' and an automatic assumption of guilt - which ORG appears happy to go along with - will lead to a chilling of free speech. Those who sail close to the wind will be self-censoring, wondering if they *can* criticise this action, these people, this policy. We should not have a situation where people fear a police boot at the door because of things said in conversation. And yet this is becoming the routine expectation in this country.

    I would rather people be offended, I would rather people be upset, than we get to the stage where we have to look at a list of acceptable topics for discussion. I'm amazed that supposedly 'liberal' people are arguing otherwise.

    Stella Creasy has suffered no harm. Did she look frightened, desperate injured on Newsnight last night? There has been no harm. Words cannot hurt you.

  24. onlyonepinman:
    Jul 31, 2013 at 10:21 AM

    Whilst I agree with the statement that Rape Threats are inappropriate, I have to disagree with the sentiment that there can ever be a point at which it is beyond a freedom of speech issue. The threats of Rape on Twitter are not credible. They're insulting and perhaps upsetting but they are not credible. They can also be blocked or deleted by the recipient.

    There has been far too many incidents recently of people being arrested for statements made on social media, especially twitter, and in at least one case being sentenced to Jail Time for it while at the same time we routinely see criminals who commit burglary and assault let off with fines, community service etc.

    Freedom of speech is just that - freedom to say what you like to who you like. Admittedly there are consequences to doing so but they should not be imposed legally because that is essentially censorship. It is the state determining what can and cannot say, what opinions you can and cannot hold and express. If you dislike what someone says on twitter, unlike real life, you switch them off so you can no longer read their words.

  25. Lilian Edwards:
    Jul 31, 2013 at 01:30 PM

    "Words cannot hurt you", though it may be the attitude of radical supporters of freedom of speech is not the attitude of the legal system of most civilised countries nor should it be, I would suggest, the attitude of ORG as part of civil society.. The aim of the threats in this case was to silence the women concerned on an online platform - something which should deeply concern supporters of free speech for all, not just white geeky men with the right set of views.

    Twitter is a fantastic platform for speech and everyone, indeed, has a right to speak there, but within a reasonable set of bounds which respect the law and do not harm others. As Jim correctly says, there is a fairly bright line vetween one off, political, joking or rhetorical statements and repeated specific and vicious threats of actual bodily harm to specified targets with the clear aim of intimidation. This corresponds very well to what Protection Against Harrassment Act 1997 s 4 says: two attempts to "cause another to fear that violence will be used against him [sic] " form a course of conduct which is a crime.

    Some application of speech laws to the online world has been stupid and misguided, most notably the "Twitter joke trial". That does not mean this is is so in every case. The Tom Daley case and the Afghani soldiers cases are probably ones that are clear of, though relatively near, the line, but these cases , because of the clear intent to intimidate, are not. In this case both as a lawyer, a woman and a civil society participant I feel the problem here has not been the application of the law or any derogation from free speech, but the appalling unwillingness of the police to do their job. Alan Cox, above , has nailed that one.

  26. Mark Pack:
    Jul 31, 2013 at 01:35 PM

    "Words cannot hurt you" - seriously? I'm lucky that my friends and acquaintances have mostly avoided mental health problems, but I could introduce you to a few people who have harrowing tales of how verbal aggression and intimidation lead to mental breakdown and attempted suicide. Words can be extremely powerful, and can cause just the sort of hurt that results in blood, broken bones and hours in A+E if you are lucky, and a trip to mortuary followed by a funeral if you're not.

    To claim that words don't hurt is such an extremist position that flies in the face of the sorts of attempted and actual suicides that happen week in week out, I suspect (and hope!) that you meant it a a clichéd quick way of saying something else. If so, perhaps saying the something else next time might be more productive...?

  27. Paul Inman:
    Jul 31, 2013 at 01:58 PM

    I'd argue words on Twitter only hurt you if you let them. These are threats from strangers who don't know you or know where you are. You can switch them off, block them qnd delete them. It can be dealt with without Police intervention. As a threat they incredible and cannot be taken seriously as such (anyone who really was going to Rape or Murder would not advertise it to their victim on Twitter), so they are really nothing more than insults that are more about the originator than anything else.

    Anyone who lets these comments affect th needs to learn how to use Twitter's security settings or reassess whether they are ready to use social media. Also if you see people making comments like that, call them on it. Most Trolls are shrinking violets when challenged

  28. stripe:
    Jul 31, 2013 at 03:16 PM

    @Lilian Edwards, the threats in this case were not to silence anyone but the work of trolls, I have had on line death threats, People have threatened to rape and kill my wife and daughter, I just had to use common sense, the /ignore function and get on with it.
    Newsnight and the "politico's" dont care about ordinary people just the ones who already have the platform from which to shout the loudest.
    I am here for digital freedom for all, and that does not include legislation to cover the web,

    "Geeky white male" mmmm if i mentioned a group of people like that regarding "sub culture:skin colour:and sex with the right views" who knows what "hate crimes" I would be accused of?

    "a lawyer, a woman and a civil society participant", sorry i should know my place and not argue with the views of my betters, apologies for any offense caused

  29. Owen Blacker:
    Aug 01, 2013 at 01:55 PM

    (I am writing for myself and not on behalf of any other organisation I might sometimes represent.)

    It feels like some people (here and elsewhere) are overlooking that what is being discussed is not individual users making threats and causing intimidation, but is the social equivalent of DDOS. It is relatively easy on Twitter for a concerted group of unconnected individuals to flood someone with @-messages such that they are not only highly intimidated but also unable to use Twitter normally. This is a relatively new phenomenon; it reminds me cursorily of fax-jamming, used by campaigners in the 1990s to block companies’ fax lines with protest messages.

    That said, whilst I do think that flagrant breaches of the law (be they rape threats or be they contempt of court and defamation) should indeed be investigated and punished appropriately. I fail to see how doing so is the responsibility of Twitter or other social networks, however — any more than it’s the responsibility of the Royal Mail to prevent poison pen letters or of road builders to ensure that drivers don’t break the speed limit.

    We should also bear in mind that such intimidation is in and of itself a free speech issue — threats of sexual and physical violence have historically been (and still are) made against “uppity” women precisely to cause a chilling effect: to discourage other women from engaging in political debate.

    Yes, free speech is exceptionally important in a democratic society. But I’m pretty sure that Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr, might have had a similar position on rape threats and “social DDOS” as he had to falsely shouting fire in a theatre.

  30. Chris Dawson:
    Aug 05, 2013 at 11:04 AM

    I used a Twitter account for a while, explored it, enjoyed it, assessed it and then moved on from it.

    Despite no longer going there receive notifications of actions on my account - I've no idea what these may contain.

    Whilst using it I had a debate with a prominent journalist, when he decided that he'd had enough of me/my point of view/my expression of my opnions he simply blocked me.

    Is there really any more that needs saying.