Every day WordPress.com receive a sizeable number of DMCA takedown notifications, and every day I personally reject a fair number of them for being incomplete, invalid, or fraudulent.
Many of those who find their takedown notifications being rejected are displeased with the decision, used to service providers choosing to automatically process them, shifting the burden of proof onto the user, rather than take on the risk of liability for themselves. Unsurprisingly, this displeasure is often most aggressively expressed by dedicated third party agents whose sole business model is based on scouring the web for potentially infringing acts, and who get paid per removal. Some people may say that with a results-driven financial incentive to have material taken offline, that there is more of a chance for the DMCA process to be used inappropriately – but that’s something you’ll need to make your minds up on independently.
Yesterday a colleague let me know about one such organisation that had evidently found some of their notifications rejected in the past, who had then chosen to take to Twitter to voice their displeasure about me doing my job.
The image they linked to was of me, lying on the grass clutching a bottle of Buckfast – the weekend of the Queen’s Jubilee, if memory serves correctly.
The one they used wasn’t really very good quality though, so here’s a higher resolution one incase they want to try again:
I’m not entirely sure what they were trying to achieve to be honest. It’s not as if pictures of me intoxicated are really all that hard to find, after all. My occasional penchant for Buckfast isn’t exactly a secret at Automattic either, given that I did my first annual ‘flash talk’ at the all-company Grand Meetup in Utah on the ol’ tonic wine.
Somebody (who shall remain nameless) suggested we reply to say:
Even smashed on Bucky, Clicky Steve knows more about the DMCA than RemoveYourMedia
Which is so beautiful it almost brought a tear to my eye.
That wasn’t the only tweet they aimed at me though.
It’s pretty bizarre that they would choose to use that case about Napster to illustrate the potential liability for service providers guilty of contributory infringement, since there are far more recent, compelling, and relevant judgements they could have made their point with. Ah well, better luck next time, eh? As far as I’m aware they never actually sued after these bold statements on social media, but maybe they’re still preparing the paper work.
At the end of the day, whilst this has given me a hearty chuckle before I turn in for the night, there’s no getting away from the fact that it’s not only petty, but ridiculously unprofessional. Making ad hominem attacks on employees of a company for rejecting your legal demands is pretty sad. If I was a copyright holder, I wouldn’t be too impressed to find the agency I had employed to protect my intellectual property deploying tactics like this. Then again, it might be a bigger deal if they had more than 1200 followers…
In the world of the DMCA, there’s only one thing dumber than submitting bogus takedown notifications, and that’s having a tantrum on Twitter when your bogus takedowns are rejected.
Recently, it was reported that the daughter of Robin Williams has left Twitter, after receiving graphic tweets depicting his suicide. This event has led to pressure being placed on the platform to take stronger action against those engaging in abusive behaviour:
‘They have a moral responsibility to protect their users, but they simply don’t.’
– Austin Awareness charity campaigner Kevin Healey. (#)
In response, Twitter has issued a statement declaring that they will be re-considering their present policies.
‘We will not tolerate abuse of this nature on Twitter.’
– Del Harvey, Twitter Vice President of Trust and Safety. (#)
The issue of abusive users on social channels is nothing new, providing a constant source of easy headlines. Part of the reason for this is due to a quirk of circumstance. ‘Ordinary’ Twitter users that receive abusive mentions (public messages directed to them) are able to block the users in question, so that they no longer see any further messages in their notifications (#). Whilst there is clearly no way to prevent the initial messages, this is a quick and simple way to stem any future abuse from that user account.
The real problem comes when there are users who are in the public spotlight. Just as these people will be the recipient of many messages from fans and well-wishers, they will also inevitably receive abusive communications in higher numbers. At this stage, the blocking mechanism becomes ineffective due to the volume involved. Given the already elevated profile of these people, there is more of a story to be told. It becomes something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s important to note that this is a very particular problem, and one that the average Twitter user will not encounter. That, of course, doesn’t mean that it’s something that should just be ignored.
Abusive messages sent to those in the public eye is far from a new phenomenon, pre-dating the existence of the Internet. Bags of letters from fans sent through the post would also be accompanied by hate mail and death threats.
In the UK, Section 1 of the Malicious Communications Act 1998 makes it an offence to send a ‘letter, electronic communication or article of any description’ containing a ‘message which is indecent or grossly offensive’, or ‘a threat’ to another person. (#) This covers not only abusive postal communications, but those sent over Twitter as well. There are similar protections enacted in different jurisdictions worldwide.
Given that this is the case, why do we place a greater burden of expectation on online service providers than we do on those who enforce the law?
The Royal Mail does not have the same technical abilities available to them as entities such as Twitter do, and therefore it manages to avoid coming under fire for acting as the carrier of abusive messages. However, the idea that responsibilities of the State should be shifted to private entities in this manner is troubling.
People will always use different methods of communication to send abusive messages. The Internet makes this easy to do so in a quick, and highly visible way. Given that these actions are illegal, then it is something that should be pursued by the arms of the law that are meant to protect its citizens. The responsibility of protecting society, mediating between individuals, or making determinations of fact should not be left to any private party – be that Facebook, Twitter, the Royal Mail, or your own ISP.
Of course, online platforms often do make determinations about the kind of community they wish to foster. Content that is completely legal to host (such as porn) is prohibited on many services. The question about how these policies are created and shaped is undoubtedly one that users should speak up about, and challenge where they disagree. It is completely right that Twitter users should express their discontent if the community which they are a part of is becoming something undesirable. However, if the issue here is really about the volume of abuse that individuals are engaged in communicating, and the resulting inability of the law to effectively deal with it, then let’s be honest about that. Ultimately, this is a societal and legal problem, not the responsibility of the Internet.
Let’s talk about public sector organisations using Twitter. In particular, those funded by the taxpayer.
Many councils and arms of Government have decided (read: been told) that they need to get on board with the digital age, and seek new ways to ‘engage with the public’ through different mediums. We expect them to be there, and so it makes sense that they are. In principle, this is a good thing. Organisations with such a direct role in people’s everyday lives should definitely be aware of the shift in how we are communicating. However, their response has to be considered, with a clear purpose, and strategy. It is clear that for many of those who are currently active on social media in this sphere, they don’t actually have a clue; more a case of diving in because they feel like they should, rather than having any real conception of what approach they should be taking.
Cardinal Sin Number One: ‘We don’t respond to messages’
The oft-repeated mantra across many public sector accounts is something along the lines of: “we monitor messages that we receive, but do not reply to them”. That is, if you are even lucky enough to get any sort of indication that somebody is actually behind these accounts. Glasgow City Council (@GlasgowCC) is one example of a local authority that don’t even bother to warn you about their blanket disregard for questions or comments they receive. Personally, I prefer this account… at least they reply:
When challenged (not over Twitter of course, because you wouldn’t get a response that way), what almost always happens is that those who are responsible for these accounts throw up their hands in faux despair, pointing to the legitimate concerns about the questions about funding in the current economic situation (ad nauseam). The benefits of using social media channels for ‘engagement’ are addressed in volume elsewhere, but we have to ask what exactly the point in an organisation investing any time in Twitter is, if they aren’t prepared to use it properly? Save the time and effort and get offline rather than building a house with sand foundations and making our towns and cities look out of touch, please.
Cardinal Sin Number Two: Posting Utter Guff
Imagine the most boring person you know, and multiply their drudgery tenfold. Now imagine being stuck with that same person at a party, where they spend all night randomly interjecting otherwise exhilarating conversations with banal statements that everybody already knows, and tries to ignore.
That fairly accurately describes the existence of most British councils that are on Twitter. It’s true that we shouldn’t really expect matters so regionally specific to be any more exciting than the weekly local newspapers, but routinely they manage to sink to even lower depths. Clearly devoid of anything worthwhile to say, at all, South Ayrshire Council chose to climb up onto the world stage with great fanfare and flourish, to deliver this poignant message:
Words actually fail me.
Seriously though, this is one of the most ridiculous, pointless tweets I’ve ever seen – and I follow @horse_ebooks
There is so much wrong with the approach highlighted in the South Ayrshire example that it’s tough to know where to begin. How is this tweet relevant… to anybody? Is your target market really the tiny number of users that might be about to park a car somewhere in South Ayrshire, who are also checking Twitter at the same time? (not to mention the illegality of using your phone whilst driving). Total nonsense. Unless, of course, the role of Twitter is to randomly remind us of illegal acts. Maybe they should say DO NOT MURDER.
If you have time to post this sort of pish, then you have time to reply to people. No excuses.
Cardinal Sin Number Three: Not Reading What (or who) You Tweet:
There are a few larger organisations that actually do have a decent amount of stuff to talk about. Things that concern a lot of us; things that we might well be prepared to sacrifice a lack of correspondence to be kept up to date with. After all, plenty of people follow celebrities because they find what they say interesting (well…), not because they expect to get a personal reply.
The trouble is, public figures tend to be fairly savvy at using the technology for their own means; they have built their careers on galvanising crowds of people, after all. Sadly, this does not seem to apply to the public sector world.
A wonderful example comes from the Department of Work & Pensions. They are already guilty of committing Cardinal Sin Number 1 (and let’s face it, not too far from the folly of Cardinal Sin Number 2 either), but they manage to rack up a hat-trick by seemingly not even proof-reading what they post in the first place.
One tweet from early October linked to a video featuring Clare Pelham – Chief Executive of a disability charity – about issues relating to employment. In of itself, this was a great bit of content to share. However, it all went wrong. This is the Clare Pelham that they meant to mention:
…and this is the Clare that they actually ended up attributing:
Now I’m no expert in this field, but I’m sure that @clare might also be a bit surprised to hear the UK Government talking about her recent promotion. For reference, here is the offending tweet, in all of its tainted glory:
Okay, so we all make mistakes. I’ve done (and do) it regularly. That might shock some of you, given my sheer articulate brilliance, but it’s true. However, I usually spot and rectify them within 0.6 seconds of the tweet going out to the world, and hang my head in shame. Not the DWP though! This particular example stayed online for at least ten days after going out. They did manage to get it right in following iterations, so it’s bizarre that they didn’t go back and make a correction. It’s probably still there, but I am too dis-heartened to check.
This wasn’t a once off either. Less than a week later they were at it again, this time with rogue characters that should have been removed before posting:
Please… read before you tweet. (and if you can’t, delete it and throw yourself upon the mercy of the Twittersphere)
Cardinal Sin Number Four: Simply Not Getting It
To close, I leave you with an insight into the behaviour of Orkney Islands Council… the behaviour of which is best left without comment:
The illustrious Mark Leiser has quoted yours truly in his latest post on the ask.fm/Twitter abuse saga over on the Drum. I’ve got an article on the same topic lined up for this week on the Open Rights Group Zine, so keep an eye out.
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.