Twitter's trolling heatwave intensified on Wednesday night when a number of journalists were targeted with terrifying bomb threats.
Reprobates used anonymous Twitter handles - whose accounts now appear to have been suspended - to send messages to Guardian features writer Hadley Freeman, Independent columnist Grace Dent and Time magazine's Europe editor Catherine Mayer. The tweets chillingly warned that bombs had been placed outside their homes.
Freeman, who had earlier waded into the row about posting rape and death threats on the micro-blogging site with a comment piece entitled: "How to use the internet without being a total loser", modified a tweet that she sent out to her thousands of followers, which read:
We've gone from rape to bomb threats, I see MT @98JU98U989 @HadleyFreeman A BOMB HAS BEEN PLACED OUTSIDE YOUR HOME. IT WILL GO OFF AT 10:47
Freeman added last night that she had reported the harassment to the police and tweeted: "If it's illegal to threaten to bomb an airport, it's illegal to threaten to bomb me."
Her comment was in reference to Paul Chambers, who was arrested in January 2010 for posting a tasteless joke on his Twitter account saying he would blow Doncaster's Robin Hood Airport "sky high" if his flight was hit by delays.
He was found guilty of sending a threatening message over a public telecoms network. Chambers later successfully appealed against his conviction in the High Court when he was cleared of having sent a "menacing" tweet.
Freeman, meanwhile, warned that "[t]he police are on the case and anyone who makes similar threats will be reported."
Scotland Yard told The Register:
We can confirm the MPS has received allegations relating to bomb threats sent to a number of females on Twitter. Enquiries continue. No arrests.
The journalists had been advised by police not to stay home over night, Mayer told BBC Radio 4's Today programme this morning. Cops also searched her building as a precautionary measure.
Over the course of the past week, threats on Twitter have ignited the debate about freedom of speech and the trolling phenomenon*.
Feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez told police last weekend that she was threatened with rape on Twitter following the success of her efforts to get author Jane Austen on England's £10 notes. A 21-year-old man in Manchester was arrested on Sunday by cops investigating the complaint.
MP Stella Creasy also griped about what appeared to be credible threats she too had received on the site.
Publish and be damned, but please don't ask us to edit the content
Twitter has attempted to limit the criticism levelled at it by saying that a special button to report such harassment will be added to the various mobile and web versions of its service soon. At present, the option to report abuse is only available on the Apple iPhone version of the service.
The company, of course, is having to walk a fine line here: just like Google, it doesn't want to be viewed as a publisher. While some might argue that - to quote one-time British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin's bruising attack on 1930s' press barons - these outfits are demanding "power without responsibility".
But it's looking evermore likely that such websites that provide a platform to host content posted by others online could soon be protected under European Union law.
In June, the EU's advocate general Niilo Jääskinen said that Google was not obliged to remove sensitive legal content from its search index. His opinion is now being pored over by the 27 judges in Luxembourg's Court of Justice where it is expected to be adopted.
Importantly, the court said in June that "requesting search engine service providers to suppress legitimate and legal information that has entered the public domain would entail an interference with the freedom of expression of the publisher of the web page. In [Jääskinen's] view, it would amount to censorship of his published content by a private party".
It's unclear whether such an opinion, if adopted, could be extended to sites such as Twitter. But its hands-off approach to how the content posted on the micro-blogging platform arrives in unedited form full of typos, libel and abuse probably drops a few hints about how the service wants to continue to be perceived. ®
* Yes, we know.