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We shouldn't want Twitter to handle harassment like Olympics GIF takedowns

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You can’t fix one broken system with another

Olympics: Swimming-Evening Session Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

Since the Olympics started earlier this month, its parent organization and broadcaster NBC have worked hard to smack down any unauthorized use (which basically amounts to any use) of its video footage. This includes ordering Twitter to remove sublime works of art like Jimmy Donofrio’s mashup of an Olympics swimming race and Santana’s "Smooth," among other posts. And as some people have noticed, Twitter is apparently doing so with a lot more zeal than it seems to devote to purging harassment.

Twitter has unambiguously failed so far at curbing abuse. As a BuzzFeed piece last week showed, there are also indications that it’s more responsive to high-profile figures whose departure or censure could hurt the platform. We don’t know how many resources Twitter has devoted to copyright versus harassment; we reached out via email yesterday, but haven’t heard back yet. But that doesn’t change the fact that holding up copyright as an example of good, responsive policing needs to stop.

Copyright law is broken, and has been for decades. It treats shared culture as personal property, is unduly influenced by huge media companies, and creates all kinds of harmful unintended consequences. Online takedown systems are often broken, too. As journalist Sarah Jeong wrote two years ago, automated tools like YouTube’s content ID are blunt instruments of questionable efficacy, based on simply comparing material to a database of copyrighted media. Companies that process claims by hand (which Twitter seems to, although it hasn’t confirmed this to us) still tend to hurriedly take content down first and ask questions later, a move that’s ripe for abuse by trolls.

As far as we know, Twitter hasn’t built some kind of advanced tool to stop copyright infringement, it’s just using simple brute-force deletions, which is enough when all you have to do is find and destroy video clips. If it did have an automatic filtering system, adapting it to fight harassment (which it may have done in limited situations already) would either create something too narrow to catch bad actors, or so broad that it swept up huge numbers of non-abusive tweets along the way — just as we’ve seen happen with Content ID.

On a more philosophical level, our copyright framework is based on the idea that someone who creates a work should be able to police every possible use of it, even if it turns out to be a totally legal use. The Santana tweet arguably meets the definition of fair use, an exception to copyright law that protects people who are commenting on, remixing, and transforming works. But fair use puts the onus on these people to prove that they’re not infringing copyright, instead of making the original rights holders prove that they are. It’s a model that effectively forces people ask permission to participate in mass culture, and even at a time when "censorship" has lost all meaning, it’s a legitimate legal threat to free speech.

I understand that most people talking about this aren’t literally trying to express support for copyright takedowns. But the comparison is a glib rhetorical move that implicitly supports a model we shouldn’t want Twitter to follow for anti-harassment. Besides, in the examples of unremoved harassment that BuzzFeed cites, the biggest problem isn’t that Twitter isn’t acting quickly enough. The problem is that Twitter actually is looking at these reports and deciding that vicious, threatening speech doesn’t meet its guidelines for removal. It’s not the process that’s broken in these cases, it’s the premise.

Twitter could absolutely do more to mitigate harassment, but likening it to people posting Olympics GIFs won’t give us good solutions. And in the end, it makes the problem of abuse seem simpler than it is. "Is this video of the Olympics?" is a far easier question to answer than "is this harassment?" Likewise, no matter how stringent it is, takedowns wouldn’t actually stop people from seeing torrents of threats in the first place — copyright owners themselves hate the endless, whack-a-mole nature of the system. Twitter’s anti-harassment battle is a crisis of identity for the platform, and it’s fighting an enemy that’s far uglier and more insidious than some clever IOC-rules-flouting meme-crafters. We can point out its losses without legitimizing one bad system in the name of criticizing another.