The Risks in Words and How Social Media Sites Address Those Risks

On February 27,, 2016 Matt Williams published an article in Modern Diplomacy arguing that the expansion of the legal definition of terrorism to include criminal acts that intend to cause fear but do not have a political motivation is too broad. His point is certainly worth considering. Terrorism legislation grants governments and law enforcement very broad powers to address the most extreme cases of violence (or potential violence) to their citizens. What would the consequences be if other criminal acts were also designated “terrorism” even when they have no political aim? Could law enforcement and governments use their extraordinary powers to address extreme criminal acts (such as harassment)? What is the balance between certain liberties such as freedom of speech and prevention of terrorist acts?

Social media sites face similar issues with respect to freedom of speech and freedom of the press and what information they release about users.  A great TED talk from 2014 provided by Twitter’s Del Harvey, Head of Twitter Trust & @Safety explores the challenges of trying to police language on a platform like Twitter. For example they may not police political discussions, but they do remove EXIF data from photographs uploaded to Twitter to prevent the unintended release of personal information by users.

I encourage you to watch the talk. It is excellent.

On social media sites the corporate security group is the police and the statutes they enforce are the terms of service and acceptable use policies. Twitter’s approach to policing content is best summed up on their own “Best Practices” page “As a policy, we do not mediate content or intervene in disputes between users. However, targeted abuse or harassment may constitute a violation of the Twitter Rules and Terms of Service. If you are a victim of targeted abuse or harassment, you can read more about how to deal with your issue here.”

Lastfm.com indicates that it will forward certain violations of its terms of service to law enforcement. It will also comply with any court orders or legislation requiring the release of user’s private information.

Having a narrow definition of “exigent circumstances” is certainly important to protect our privacy, basic freedoms, whether online or in the real world. These are challenges that social media platforms deal with as well.