The anti-social networks

Spanish authorities say Twitter is not doing enough to help locate users who harass others

A man checks his cellphone as a young woman walks by.
A man checks his cellphone as a young woman walks by.Santi Burgos

“We could have cleared the matter up in a month, but it took eight,” says Inspector Silvia Barrera of the Spanish National Police’s Technology Investigation Brigade (BIT). “Twitter refused to cooperate. It was very frustrating.”

Barrera is talking about the investigation into the harassment of television presenter Lara Siscar on the social network, over which two men were recently arrested. She says it is not the only case in which the firm has failed to help law enforcement authorities. “Twitter refuses to give the IP address [the unique numerical label assigned to each computer, smartphone or other internet-connected device] of stalkers even when a judge says a crime has been committed. The company uses the excuse that the data is in the United States and that Spanish courts need to apply to US authorities. This is time consuming and expensive [...] We have already experienced this with two cases of threats being made against public figures, one of which was very serious,” she says.

Spanish police say Twitter puts its users’ privacy ahead of any crimes they might be committing

Twitter’s Spanish division refuses to say how many complaints it receives from users about threats or bullying, and will not put a figure on how many people have closed their accounts for this reason. “We take threatening behavior very seriously,” says a spokesman. “We have updated our policies, and have banned threats of violence or encouraging the use of violence; we have changed the way we apply the rule that enables us to block accounts for a certain period of time and we have increased the number of people working to deal with complaints of this kind,” he adds, without providing any figures, or detailing what training they might have received.

The criminal code and the social networks

Natalia Junquera

The author of a tweet celebrating the murder of senior Popular Party politician Isabel Carrasco in May 2014 was eventually prosecuted. And about time, says Silvia Barrera of the police force's Technology Investigation Brigade (BIT). "People were telling us that we weren't doing anything. We were caught by surprise. Now we know that when something terrible happens, there will be comments of this type. But of course what is morally reprehensible is not necessarily illegal."

"Let's not get carried away, they were Catalans on that plane, not people," was just one of the many tweets that surfaced in the wake of the Germanwings plane crash in April. Several arrests followed. Spain's penal code has been overhauled to include tougher penalties for incitement to hatred based on race, ideology, or sexual identity, and specifically recognizes the use of the internet and new technologies.

The reforms also include legislation to deal with bullying, “in response to behavior with very serious consequences that on many occasions cannot be called threats as such.” The idea is to punish people who, for example, laugh at or scorn those who have suffered injury or personal loss, “through any means of communication.”

The number of complaints about internet abuse increases each year, but as Elvira Tejada, a public prosecutor called before a parliamentary commission as an expert witness, noted: “There is a lack of tools to process cases, as well as a lack of resources to properly investigate.”

Siscar says that when she raised the matter of abuse on Twitter, the company told her: “We understand that content might be found on Twitter that one doesn’t like or finds offensive. [...] In the same way that we might overhear an offensive conversation in any public place, finding inflammatory content on Twitter can be upsetting.” But the newsreader says she was receiving insulting messages from up to 15 different profiles, and that she was even stopped in the street and insulted. “When I saw that Twitter wasn’t going to do anything, I went to the police: they were surprised I hadn’t reported this before.”

Vijaya Gadde, Twitter’s general counsel, admitted recently in the Washington Post that “sometimes” the company had “failed” to protect users. “Even when we have recognized that harassment is taking place, our response times have been inexcusably slow and the substance of our responses too meager,” she said. “But safety is not an end in and of itself. If not thoughtfully applied, safety tools and policies can undermine freedom and relevance on Twitter as much as abuse can.”

Spanish police say Twitter puts freedom of speech and its users’ privacy ahead of any possible crimes they might be committing. The company received 69 requests from the Spanish authorities in the second quarter of 2014, of which it provided information in just 12 percent of cases. The previous year it refused to provide any information at all.

Twitter’s head of global security recently told a Spanish parliamentary commission that the company works closely with the police in Spain. Inspector Barrera disagrees: “At least Facebook keeps users’ data, even when they close an account, but Twitter doesn’t. Anybody being threatened has to take screen captures and keep evidence. For us, it is like having to actually see a murder to be able to investigate somebody.”

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She says that the best way to deal with people using Twitter to abuse or threaten others is by imposing steep fines: “It is less expensive to make somebody’s life a misery for two years on Twitter than it is to exceed the speed limit by 20 kilometers an hour.”

The Madrid provincial court recently instructed a lower tribunal to begin proceedings against somebody who made insulting comments on an internet chat site. The tribunal had said it could not request an IP address except in cases where the crime carried a jail term of more than five years. But the higher court argued that the internet was “the most powerful social distribution medium and that this drastically increased the impact of the insults on the complainant.” Failing to take action in such a case would be to “give the impression of impunity.”