Mike Barton

Police chief’s criticisms ignored by Twitter

A chief constable’s attack on Twitter has been met with deafening silence from the firm, whose boss he has urged to get a grip on online abuse.

One of the UK’s top police officers is frustrated that the chief executive of Twitter has not even bothered replying to a letter he wrote challenging the web giant to do more to combat concerted campaigns of bullying and harassment waged by many of its users.

Mike Barton, who is Chief Constable of Durham Constabulary, first wrote to the then boss of the company, Dick Costolo, as far back as 2013 saying his officers were having to deal with vast numbers of cases on a daily basis, but he received no response from the Silicon Valley firm.

Twitter asked him to re-send his missive after he stated in an article in the Times that being allowed to use social media was a “privilege not a right”. He has advocated taking a tougher line on Twitter accounts deemed to be unsavoury, placing less emphasis on freedom and more on safety.

Libertarians and freedom of speech campaigners recoil from such moves, regarding them as undemocratic, but Barton has argued: “It’s not breaching someone’s human rights to say you can’t use Twitter.”

Technically he is right as Britain has no equivalent to the USA’s First Amendment, which enshrines freedom of speech as an absolute right.

Though the Human Rights Act does protect freedom of speech in general, it is unlikely judges would interpret merely suspending a persons social media account as any breach of this fundamental legislation.

Twitter has not yet had the decency to even acknowledge Barton’s letter. The police chief’s spokesman told E&T today that he was “disappointed” but would keep up the pressure on the company and other big internet firms which he regards as shirking their responsibilities.

An enquiry by E&T to Twitter UK’s press office asking why current CEO Jack Dorsey had still not seen fit to respond to Barton has also been blithely ignored by the American company.

Barton has become increasingly annoyed about the level of police resources being expended daily on investigating incidents on social media ranging from mere rows to serious cases of stalking and grooming.

He is also understood to be angry about Twitter’s apparent lack of appetite for engaging cooperatively with the police in cases where video material which is potentially legally prejudicial, or which could undermine the safety of officers working undercover, is thought to have been posted on its site.

Barton has previously said that if the likes of Twitter and Facebook “can’t police” their network because it has grown too big, then they should not “run it so big”.

There is no suggestion Twitter has broken any UK laws. However, its seeming disregard for repeated offers of advice from such a senior law enforcement officer has been described by UK policing experts as typical of the company’s dismissive attitude to the authorities.

One told E&T: “It is indicative. Their attitude is they are just a platform and so they don’t care.”

In his article in the Times last week, Barton wrote: “Social media sites are shirking their responsibilities when it comes to regulating extremist content that inspires violence and murder. Their claims that they are not publishers are, quite frankly, fatuous.”

He added: “International terrorists realise that the way to make contact with vulnerable people, getting messages direct to them in their bedrooms, is through these sites. We have discovered that the process of radicalisation can take merely a matter of months. Incredibly, some terrorists generate cash for their organisations through advertising on the platforms.

“Facebook has hired 3,000 moderators but that is too little too late. Moderators do nothing to make the world safer. These companies need to employ far more people who can work with the police when the law is broken.”

He had earlier told members of the Crime Reporters’ Association that technology companies wrongly seemed to believed that they had no responsibility to prevent the sharing of child abuse images and jihadist content.

He said: “They [technology companies] will say that the volume of traffic is so high it is hard to find them. The volumes are so high so that they earn eye-watering profits – [they should] reinvest those eye-watering profits.”

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