A spate of Twitter abuse directed at relatively high-profile Australian celebrities has led a number of politicians and media outlets to call for a crackdown on Twitter "trolls," and calls for them to be outed. The problem is that all of the impassioned rhetoric ignores the fact that there are many avenues that can already be pursued to "stop the trolls."
It began with Australia's Next Top Model co-host Charlotte Dawson being told to kill herself two weeks ago, which led to her hospitalisation. This week saw Australian Rugby League (NRL) star Robbie Farah receive abusive tweets about his recently deceased mother. New South Wales Premier Barry O'Farrell said that those responsible need to be tracked down and held to account for their tweets, and Farah was even given an audience with Prime Minister Julia Gillard to air his concerns about the Twitter trolls.
The Daily Telegraph has now launched a petition to #Stopthetrolls, and has already picked up the support of Communications Minister Stephen Conroy, Treasurer Wayne Swan, and Attorney-General Nicola Roxon.
Roxon, who is also currently undertaking a massive review of telecommunications security legislation, said that stronger co-operation is needed from governments, law enforcement, and US-based social networks. This handily aligns with a lot of what the government is trying to achieve with its review of security legislation, to make it easier for law-enforcement agencies to get hold of the information being held by companies like Twitter as part of their investigations.
As online rights advocate Geordie Guy noted in a blog post on the subject today, it is already an offence to harass people over Twitter, as it is considered a "carriage service" under the Australian Criminal Code Act:
474.17 Using a carriage service to menace, harass or cause offence
(1) A person is guilty of an offence if:
(a) the person uses a carriage service; and
(b) the person does so in a way (whether by the method of use or the content of a communication, or both) that reasonable persons would regard as being, in all the circumstances, menacing, harassing, or offensive.
Penalty: Imprisonment for 3 years.
So the police do have the means of tracking down the particularly nasty people, who can get jail terms of up to three years. The police has been quoted as saying that it is difficult to get Twitter to hand over the IP addresses of the Twitter trolls, but that doesn't really match up with the reality of what we're already seeing today.
If law-enforcement agencies went through the proper processes, Twitter can and does comply and hand over information. Just overnight, Twitter was ordered by a New York court to hand over the user information of a person alleged to have been involved with the Occupy Wall Street protests. And a simple glance at Twitter's transparency report reveals that in 63 percent of cases where government agencies or law-enforcement bodies ask Twitter for user information, Twitter hands it over. So just over once every two times that a government asks Twitter for information, Twitter hands it over. Not bad.
The interesting thing to note in the report is that Australia only made less than 10 requests between January and June this year, and only one third of those requests resulted in information being handed over. By comparison, the US made 679 requests, and 75 percent of the time this information was handed over to the authorities. Maybe the question isn't whether Twitter is or isn't complying, but whether Australian law-enforcement agencies are just doing it wrong.
Nobody likes being abused, and it is not something unique to Twitter itself by any means, but the hysteria around cracking down on a few Twitter trolls who have been mean to celebrities seems a tad hollow. It's not about investigating legitimate offences — law enforcement can and does do that — but "outing Twitter trolls" is about handing power back to those who were so used to having it in the days before social media.
What people have forgotten about the Dawson incident is that it began when she called the employer of someone who said mean things to a friend on Twitter, and went public about it in the media, leveraging her existing celebrity status. Calls for Twitter to remove any anonymity of its users would only harm Twitter, and hand back power to traditional media, which will then be able to leverage their existing influence to silence anyone that they happen to disagree with by threatening to "out" them in newspapers or on TV.