Twitter’s new bid to end online abuse could endanger dissidents
The social network is forcing Tor users and serial trolls to register their mobile phone numbers – but that won’t stop dedicated abusers, and may expose anonymous users in repressive regimes.
Twitter has started forcing users of the Tor anonymity network – along with serial trolls – to register their phone numbers, in order to stop abuse.
Users given short-term suspensions for abuse will be required to register their phone number with Twitter, a step that is currently optional, so the company can track trolls and block them from creating multiple accounts.
But Twitter has also begun requiring all users of the anonymity network Tor to register their phone number to access the service, regardless of whether or not they are involved in abuse.
Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group, has voiced concerns over the move. He said: “Requiring all Tor users to submit a mobile phone number to sign up for a Twitter account could risk exposing people who have a legitimate need to keep their identity hidden – for example human rights activists, dissidents and victims of abuse. Tor was one of the ways that activists in Turkey could access social media when the government closed down networks in 2014.”
Users protecting their identity with Tor will have to register a valid phone number on signing up for an account. Normally just a valid email address is required to sign up for an account.
The clampdown may stop causal abusers, but those that have gone to the trouble of using Tor to set up accounts and protect their identity to troll and abuse users are unlikely to be deterred by a phone number requirement.
In nations such as the UK and the US, working phone numbers are easy to obtain without giving mobile phone networks personal details. Such “burner phones” are often pre-paid phone plans bought with cash without the requirement for identification and therefore cannot be tracked to an individual.
But in other countries, such workarounds may be less available. In Turkey, all mobile phones have to be registered, including those bought outside of the country. A passport is required to obtain a sim card and phone number, which makes any phone number that could be subpoenaed from Twitter by the government a risk of exposing identity.
The move forms part of Twitter’s chief executive Dick Costolo’s promise to help do more to combat abuse on its platform, after he took personal charge of the company’s efforts and tripled the size of its abuse report handling team.
Costolo has pledged to “put the cost of dealing with harassment on those doing the harassing” rather than the victims of which putting in registration hurdles is one way. But Costolo has also said that he wishes not to impact on those using Twitter as a legitimate platform for dissent, in countries where such opinion and conversation is stamped out.