Twitter reverses blocking policy after public outcry

An emergency meeting of top executives was called, showing just how difficult it is for the service to balance 'free speech' and accountability
  • @jjvincent

Twitter has reversed changes to its user-blocking policies less than twenty four hours after they were introduced following widespread outcry from users.

The new rules were briefly introduced by the micro-blogging service on Friday morning and meant that users could still receive messages from individuals they had blocked, although these interactions would be hidden.

Blocking is used by people to stop abusive commentators interacting with them on the site and many users complained the new policy relegated the block function to a ‘mute’ button, giving abusive users and trolls more visibility on the site than they had previously enjoyed.

The response from many of Twitter’s 250 million users was so acute that the company’s executives were reported to have rushed into an emergency meeting to discuss the policy changes.

“We have decided to revert the change after receiving feedback from many users – we never want to introduce features at the cost of users feeling less safe,” said vice president of policy Michael Sippey in a blog post yesterday. “Any blocks you had previously instituted are still in effect.”

However, Sippey implied that despite the current outcry users can still expect further changes to blocking policies, describing the current system as “not ideal,” and commenting that “some users worry just as much about post-blocking retaliation as they do about pre-blocking abuse.”

Caroline Criado-Perez, a campaigner who faced a storm of rape and murder threats on Twitter after calling for women to be included on banknotes earlier this year, welcomed the micro-blogging site’s reversal, but said, “I’m really pleased Twitter listened to its users because its briefly imposed blocking policy was basically an abusers charter. It shows again how little of a grasp Twitter has on the way its platform can be used for harassing and stalking people.”

Ms Criado-Perez isn’t the only campaigner or high-profile woman to have been on the receiving end of violent misogynist abuse on the site this year. In August the Labour MP Stella Creasy was sent a photograph of a masked man brandishing a knife after she spoke out about the death and rape threats she has received on Twitter, while Independent columnist Grace Dent, Guardian columnist Hadley Freeman and the Catherine Mayer from Time magazine, as well as a number of other women, have all been subject to bomb threats on the site.

These high-profile cases and recent statistics showing there are 2,000 crimes related to online abuse in London alone each year, have seen calls for Twitter to restrict abusive users on its service, but in his post yesterday Mr Sippey implied that despite the current outcry users can still expect further changes to blocking policies.

He described the current system as “not ideal,” and said that “some users worry just as much about post-blocking retaliation as they do about pre-blocking abuse.”

Many campaigners aren’t impressed though. Ms Criado-Perez added: “I must say Twitter’s response has been a bit mealy-mouthed in suggesting it knows best. I’m worried it hasn’t really listened. Twitter isn’t the expert in dealing with harassment and is is being very high-handed and arrogant in this.”

Tim Crook, reader in Media & Communication at Goldsmiths, University of London, said Twitter’s move was a “cynical surrendering of corporate responsibility and failure to protect vulnerable people from offensive and harmful speech.” He added that online abuses should be “be vigorously and enthusiastically policed by criminal intervention”.

The problem is not limited to Twitter either, with Facebook coming under fire this October for allowing an explicit video showing a woman being beheaded on the site. Although such material exists elsewhere online, critics argue that the site's core functionality - sharing content, especially amongst younger users - brings extra responsibility. The video was kept online but given an age warning.

Paul Saffo, a technology forecaster and consulting professor in the School of Engineering at Stanford University said the original change was “well-intentioned but profoundly inept”.

“The bottom line is that when taken with all the other privacy disasters of the last year (NSA included, of course), we are in the early stages of a profound social reinvention of what it means to have privacy.  In the past, much of our privacy was based on the simple difficulty of connecting and watching. Cops couldn’t do an NSA stunt because it was just too hard and too expensive.  Now that snooping/stalking/harassing is easy, inexpensive and instant, as a society we are inevitably rethinking our norms. And companies like Twitter are right on the bleeding edge of that change.”