31/07/2013 13:46 BST | Updated 30/09/2013 06:12 BST

Twitter Abuse Isn't a Censorship or Freedom of Speech Issue, It's a Human Issue

Imagine you're queuing up for a coffee. You order, and pull out a £10 note with which to pay.

"Wouldn't it be great to have a woman on a banknote?" you might remark as you hand it to the barista.

"F*ck you, you f***ing sl*t," he snarls back. "I'm going to wait for you outside later and rape you."

What do you do? Cry? Run away? Look around for help? Let's say you look around for help. You turn to the woman standing next to you.

"If you can't take it, don't dish it out," she shrugs. "Don't be so pathetic."

"You were asking for that," agrees the man next to her. "Anyway, it's not like it's actually going to happen. Just ignore him."

Of course this scenario would never happen. For a start you probably wouldn't strike up a conversation with a barista about women on banknotes in the first place, but let's say you did, and that was his response - he'd be fired immediately. And you or somebody else, one of the people stood next to you perhaps, might call the police, and he'd be arrested. Everybody in the coffee shop would agree this was disgraceful behaviour and utterly unacceptable.

And yet when this kind of behaviour happens online, it's a different story.

Just ask Caroline Criado-Perez, who recently successfully campaigned to have Jane Austen put on the new £10 banknote. Since her victory she has been bombarded with hate messages, rape threats and death threats across social media, sometimes as many as 50 an hour. Criado-Perez turned to Twitter, the source of most of the threats, for help, and encountered a brick wall of patter about 'regulations' and apathy to the point where one Twitter official actually protected his account so he didn't have to deal with the problem.

But, as we all know, Criado-Perez isn't the first to have been subject to such threats. Thanks to an increasing outcry from Twitter users and high-profile individuals including MP Stella Creasey, Twitter has finally agreed to install a 'report abuse' button.

Despite the fact that online abuse has been an issue bubbling away with increasing intensity, this is not a universally popular decision.

Men and women alike have complained about 'censorship' and cited 'freedom of speech'. It has been argued that women 'deserve it' for speaking out, and 'if you can't take it, don't dish it out'. The latter is particularly perplexing. Had Criado-Perez threatened to rape or murder the governor of the Bank of England we could perhaps understand the argument, but how is campaigning for a woman to appear on a banknote 'dishing it out?'.

Let us be clear here. We are not talking about sad little messages calling women fat and ugly. These are of course not desirable - but they do not constitute a threat to harm. And as the individual who Tweeted academic Mary Beard calling her a 'filthy old slut' found out, there are ways to deal with those who send such messages, such as threatening to tell their mothers.

Threats to rape and kill made in person do constitute a criminal offence. Why should it be different online? Because you have a public profile? Having a public profile doesn't mean you in some way 'deserve' or should 'expect' threats to harm and kill. Because 'they don't mean it' and 'it'll never happen'? How do you know? Surely the fact that such offences usually go unpunished acts in itself as a motivator to individuals who threaten others online.

It is beyond me how anybody could defend the 'right' to threaten harm. And we are not just talking about threats to harm women, although unfortunately the vast, vast majority of such threats are made against women.

It is also beyond me how anybody could think the solution is to simply tell the victim to 'ignore it'. How about tell the perpetrator not to do it? And if they don't stop, then make them, by calling them out and if necessary, taking formal action against them.

How about remembering we're all human beings? As Criado-Perez herself said, this isn't really a feminist issue. This is a human issue.