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‘We may make mistakes,’ says Twitter, as it begins campaign to silence web bullies

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Twitter has been criticised for being too soft on abuse and harassment, but it runs the risk of alienating free speech evangelists by asserting editorial control and suspending accounts deemed to have fallen foul of new rules.

Twitter has warned users of the micro-blogging site that it “may make some mistakes” as it commences a programme of enforcement of new rules that it has laid down with the intention of making the site “safer”.

This comes after it was criticised as being too soft on abusive content and after it paused its so-called verification process, which uses a blue tick symbol to indicate that users are who they say they are. Twitter’s boss Jack Dorsley insisted the tick was not intended as a sign of endorsement, but the symbol was nonetheless taken off several accounts belonging to prominent far-right activists.

Women’s groups have also boycotted Twitter in protest after actress Rose McGowan’s account had its features disabled in the midst of the Harvey Weinstein sexual misconduct scandal.

The Silicon Valley firm today released a statement admitting that its new, beefed-up policies may lead to some of its users being wrongly penalised. However, the company says it is drawing up an appeals process for people who feel they have been dealt with unfairly.

The company has in the past been loathe to get involved directly in heavily policing its network, perhaps because phenomena like intimidation and hate speech are so subjective. While overt racism is normally relatively easy to spot, it is sometimes unclear whether use of various contested symbols is intended to offend and offensiveness is often largely in the eye of the beholder.

Public order legislation already enables UK police to take action where specific comments designed to insight violence are made, but it has at times proved harder to get convictions under so-called hate crime laws because they are seen as contravening rights to freedom of speech.

Britain, however, has no equivalent to the USA’s First Amendment, which enshrines freedom of speech as an absolute right. The UK also has famously strict libel laws.

Under Twitter’s new rules, individuals or groups could have their accounts permanently suspended for offline as well as online behaviour if they are judged to be promoting violence against civilians. Governments and military accounts are excluded from the rule.

Wishing serious physical harm, death or disease on a person or group of people also violates the new rules, as does posting “hateful imagery” designed to promote hostility towards others based on their race, religion or sexuality.

Mike Barton, one of the UK’s top police officers and a prominent critic of tech firms, wrote to Twitter earlier this year challenging the web giant to do more to combat concerted campaigns of bullying and harassment.

At that time he said the use of social media was a “privilege not a right” and advocated 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.”

He later told E&T that Twitter and Facebook had “played at the edge of what is allowed” by claiming not to be publishers.

A UK parliamentary committee last week recommended the introduction of new laws to make social media companies criminally liable for illegal content hosted on their platforms.

The Committee on Standards in Public Life also said an EU directive classifying the likes of Twitter as hosters of content rather than as publishers was “out of date”.

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