THE BLOG
28/07/2013 18:50 BST | Updated 27/09/2013 06:12 BST

I Hope Something Can Be Done About Twitter Rape Threats... But the Proposed Solution May Lead to Unintended Consequences

One suggestion that has picked up momentum is the suggestion that Twitter create a more visible and streamlined 'report abuse' system - in fact, this has become the subject of a growing petition. Whilst I can understand the sincere urge for something to change to stop this horrible abuse, this option in particular does seem as though it could have some unintended consequences.

When Edward Snowden told the world about the massive draconian surveillance that the NSA had been carrying out, most people were rightly horrified. To try and calm everyone down, President Obama revealed that only non-Americans were being watched, as though this was any better.

Snowden explained that "The restrictions against this are policy-based, not technically based, and can change at any time". In other words - the technology is already there, and there's no reason the NSA couldn't spy on Americans - other than someone up the chain of command telling them not to. Which is a bit scary.

Here in the UK, this week David Cameron has been trying to create a moral panic by advocating a draconian and unworkable porn-block by default by UK internet service providers. This has worried critics for a number of reasons - and not just as they won't be able to quite so easily access pornography. One possible implication is that once the technical tools are there to block certain websites, it's only policy that will prevent the blocking tool being used to block other material. It's easy to imagine an opportunist politician - like, say, perennial bandwagon jumper Keith Vaz - arguing that if we can easily block porn, why can't we block the Hamas website, or the English Defence League? And next time there are riots, maybe Home Secretary Theresa May would call for the blocking of Facebook to stop kids planning where to smash up next? As Snowden warned - this wouldn't be a technical issue, but a policy one.

Scary, eh?

This brings me on to the storm on Twitter this weekend surrounding the rape threats sent en masse to a feminist campaigner. This is undoubtedly horrible and repulsive - and instinctively would make any sane person think that something must be done.

But what 'something'? This is the tricky bit. One of the suggestions that has picked up momentum is the suggestion that Twitter create a more visible and streamlined 'report abuse' system (which could be, say, an icon to click on a tweet) - in fact, this has become the subject of a growing petition.

Whilst I can understand the sincere urge for something to change to stop this horrible abuse, this option in particular does seem as though it could have some unintended consequences.

For example - what's to stop the report abuse button being abused by, say, members of a certain litigious quasi-religious organisation from using the same functionality to report their critics for "religious hatred"? Or for lefties on Twitter (I hear there are a few of them on there...) to report tweets by Ukip as racist? As much as I loath Ukip and their policies, sadly I have to accept them as a legitimate part of political debate, and would not want to see them silenced.

This puts Twitter into a very awkward position of having to make judgement calls on content. I don't know the answer to this, but could Twitter conceivably come up with a policy that would enable them to stop the rape threats, but not create a situation where a "report" button could be used by organised groups to stifle valid debate?

If the rule is too narrow ("no rape threats") then it will be ineffective as the sort of undesirables who post horrible things are still able to skirt close to the line but not cross it, and if it's too broad it could lead to the same tools being used to stifle legitimate debate.

In other words, the changes proposed by the petition could lead to a situation where there is both the technical base, and policy base, for some unpleasant unintended consequences. I wonder how many of the people calling for a Twitter clampdown today were also tweeting their outrage about the NSA?

I don't know what the answer to this conundrum is. Twitter, like many online platforms is too new for us to know how to handle it - and it has blurred the line between the public and the private, between the safe space and the public square. The only thing I know is that there should be careful thought given to issues like this by all sides - and I'm not sure there's a way to come up with a consistent answer.