Yesterday it was posted in the Drum that after receiving a number of threats including rape over Twitter, that the subject of these messages – Caroline Criado-Perez – has been approached by a lawyer with respect to a possible civil law action against the service. Under Section 112 of the Equality Act 2010, no person must ‘knowingly help’ another to do anything which contravenes the conditions laid out in the Act. Without commenting directly on the facts or merits of this case, if Twitter are to be held liable for the actions of its users in such a manner, the ramifications would extend far beyond the issues at hand.
There are few that would argue that the social network knowingly and willingly designed their systems specifically to allow people to abuse others – it wouldn’t make good business sense for a start. Users don’t tend to stick around on services where they can’t filter out those that they don’t want to interact with, which is exactly why there is a ‘block’ function in place. Whether it is practical to be able to block thousands of different sources quickly and effectively is quite a different question, and one which is not new to the web – as any webmaster worth their salt will know. Block an offending IP address, and just as quickly another one will pop up: the ol’ virtual whack-a-mole.
Twitter may have ‘knowingly’ created a system where people are free to disseminate information en masse, quickly, and with any content as they so desire, but to hold them to account for ‘knowingly helping’ people to breach Equality legislation seems farcical (not to mention out-with its intended purpose). If providers are to be held responsible for that posted by its users to such an extent, then we may as well proceed to shutdown all similar platforms, as any that allow people a level of freedom of expression, as they will always be mis-used. To apply the law in this way would have a chilling effect not just on the development of the web, but on free speech itself.