Either Enforce Your Rules Or Don’t Have Them

Rules don’t absolve accountability. They create it.

Peter Coffin
Oct 1, 2015 · 9 min read

In 2015, the UN published (and retracted) a report about “cyber violence.” This term is amusingly outdated, but that isn’t the problem people seem to have with it. The main concern, it seems, is that it’s going to “censor the internet” with “fascism.” When we see stuff like that flying around over… not fascism, we should immediately know not to listen. When someone accuses a report — not a law proposal, but a report that was retracted anyway — of fascism, a voice inside many of our heads speaks up and says “this person is not interested in reasonable discourse.”

It doesn’t matter if the report is a total failure and a ham-fisted attempt at talking about a very nuanced issue, calling it “an attempt to censor” and escalating it to “fascism” is immature and an action of bad faith.

However, I don’t understand how it even got to the UN. Many of the people who spoke at the hearing regarding this report said things that really needed to be said, but — and I’m going to say this bluntly — there’s no fucking excuse or reason the issue of abuse, harassment, stalking and violence online should not already be taken care of.

Encouraging aggressive and violent behavior leads to communities of aggressive and violent folks being aggressive and violent to each other.

Why do you think sites like Twitter and Reddit have stalled so badly in growth? Either platform has diehard fans — people who will be using them long after the apocalypse. However, the sites both seem to have reached a point of stagnation (or slow-to-the-point-of-insignificant growth). Jack Dorsey, co-founder of Twitter, asserted that despite their ubiquity, the issue hindering the company’s growth is most people (including regular users of the service) don’t know what Twitter is actually even for.

If we do not find that to be rather condescending (whether intentionally or not), we should maybe spend a little time thinking about it. We The People™ have been using chat rooms, message boards, blogs and other online communities much longer than Twitter has existed and we typically know why. It’s a link to the outside world many may not have, a community of people who might get who you are as a person better than the people you deal with offline, or it might just be that it can feel more safe to express your thoughts and feelings somewhere you can easily disconnect from.

Twitter is a community. It’s a different experience for different people, but ultimately it’s a collective that by existing, opens us to a world of people we don’t have access to otherwise. We speak with each other, exchange ideas, post our own creative works and the works of others, and discuss. It’s essentially a massive tool for organic conversation and cultural progression.

The Terms of Service on Twitter specifically point out that they do not permit targeted hostility that has escalated beyond simple disagreement. Yet, on a daily basis I see large amounts of this continually happen. Why do you think this is even in the TOS then?

Really hostile people love sites with lenient TOS (which Twitter actually is not guilty of) or lackluster enforcement (which Twitter is), and a community of aggressive or violent people is a small community that shrinks rather than grows.

When you’re encouraged to eat your enemies alive, you make damn sure you have enemies. One has to eat, you know. When the low-hanging fruit has been eaten, one has to loosen their standards for “who is an enemy.” It has to take less to be put on that list, because you need enemies to eat! Once the outside enemies are gone, the conflict can’t continue unless you start viewing insiders as enemies as well. Encouraging aggressive and violent behavior leads to communities of aggressive and violent folks being aggressive and violent to each other.

The level of aggressive and violent a person is will always be a variable, and as “the kind ones” disappear, the ones on the low end of the “aggressive and violent” scale become the new “kind ones.” They are targeted for attacks. Eventually this leads to the weeding out of all but the most horrible people. Eventually this leads to Reddit.

No, Reddit is not home to the most awful people on the planet exclusively, but the people who use the site who are not horrible generally regard the site itself as horrible. Twitter is on its way to that if they don’t start enforcing their rules. And if the quality of community can not be made into a motivating factor for the company, I’d like to point out to them that “barely noticeable” growth — at least, in the business world — is not growth.

Why join a site like that if you want to post your thoughts and feelings and engage with people, both like-minded and otherwise, about our collective thoughts on the happenings or philosophy of today’s culture? Isn’t that what Twitter is? If I’m supposed to expect an avalanche of hatred for posting fairly innocuous opinions or criticisms, why should I sign up for that social network? Why should I spend my time contributing there? What is the point?

Terms of Service are contracts between a service provider and a service user that establish what the service provider does and does not allow or encourage on its service. Twitter’s also attempts to absolve legal accountability (“will not have an obligation”) of the provider for its users’ actions. The problem here is a contract (and make no mistake, TOS is a contract) works both ways — it requires them to take action against violations of the rules (rules Twitter’s TOS explicitly states “are part of these Terms”) for them to actually have any meaning beyond “if this happens, it wasn’t us and you can’t do anything to us!” In other words, if they have rules they don’t enforce, but reap benefits by shifting the responsibility of these rules away from themselves, these rules are not made in good faith. The problem for these companies that use TOS to dodge responsibility is that rules create accountability; they do not absolve it. If you have the authority to create rules, you have the responsibility to uphold them.

“We reserve the right at all times (but will not have an obligation) to remove or refuse to distribute any Content on the Services, to suspend or terminate users” — Twitter’s TOS

If someone with the money to hire a good lawyer truly wanted to, I’m fairly certain they could prove in a civil court that more than a few social companies have breached their own TOS by not enforcing what they have stated in a legal document — which a TOS is. A company doing this on the proportion many of these sites are operating at exhibits large-scale negligence (and in cases involving marginalized groups, indirect hostility) that does put the accountability of their problem users on them. The problem is, most people affected by these breaches (especially marginalized people) in contract can not afford any lawyer, let alone a good one.

Twitter, Reddit and a slew of other social sites explicitly forbid behavior they continually allow anyway. If these sites want to be havens of unconditional allowance of any behavior, they should re-write their TOS so the people using their service have a reasonable expectation that other users of the site can and will be massively hostile to them with no repercussions. Users can then know that if these are the conditions they can expect from using the platform, it doesn’t make sense to use. Someone is eventually going to make a service that does make sense for this kind of person to use, and they will use it. That shouldn’t take any UN intervention. Again, TOS is a social and, more importantly, legal contract a company enters into with their user base.

What is covered in the UN report seems to be the same things these companies claim to be against — in accordance to their own contracts with their users. I don’t understand why it has become a UN issue as a TOS is a legally-binding contract between two parties over a service provided. I’ve seen successful lawsuits happen over lesser grievances and no one called them frivolous. Take the UN out of the equation: either you claim — in writing — that you don’t allow people to behave this way on your platform and enforce these claims you made in a legal document…

…Or you don’t put this kind of shit in the contract between you and your users. The document that absolves you of legal responsibility (you know, law stuff) for enforcing the rules you’ve established.

Drafting and instituting documented standards that claim this behavior is not allowed on your platform then immediately saying “but we have no obligation to enforce” is disingenuous, negligent, and in my opinion fraudulent. If I start a gym and say “you have to wipe up your sweat when you’re done with the machines” and then do absolutely nothing about the sweat people leave on the machines, give no indication I care about the sweat people leave on the machines, and hire staff that gives no fucks about the sweat people leave on the machines — there’s going to be sweat all over the machines.

When your site is as big as Twitter, you should be required to enforce your rules or simply not to have them. And if you don’t have rules: fine, you have no rules. I won’t use your site, and you’re probably fine with me not using your site. We are all better off. I know to stay away, and you don’t get me talking about how your company repeatedly ignores the standards it set for itself. But even those sites are still bound by “the law.” It isn’t as if there is such thing as a public site that truly has no rules.

We are at a point we absolutely shouldn’t be at. No one should have to explain to the United damn Nations how people on the internet are using popular, accessible, mainstream services to stalk, threaten, harass, and abuse other people. Every new user to any of these sites is another act of them making promises they truly do not care to fulfill. As companies continually prove they have no want to enforce the rules they set in their usage contracts, it continues to look like regulation is in order. Not in the behavior of users or what they can and can not say, though. Companies need to be accountable for the rules they set in legally-binding documents that determine what a user has to comply with to use their privately-owned service.

If you want to privately own a hellhole where people say/do/are total garbage, be my guest. You’re free to, assuming your site stays in the confines of the law (though it may note be if the laws themselves are properly enforced — different issue, though). If you have rules set for your users, however, you should have to enforce them. It is continually being proven these rules can drastically affect people’s lives… and you, *insert name of prominent social corporation here*, wrote them.

Peter Coffin

Written by

satirist/weirdo - youtube.com/petercoffin

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