There are aspects of Twitter that are fairly well known or that at least come as no surprise.
- Twitter is a San Francisco-based operation and one of the largest social media companies in the world with over 330 million users who send an average of 500 million tweets each day.
- Twitter is a large and profitable company with around 4,900 employees and a current market capitalization of about $40 billion.
- Twitter enables users to communicate online using “tweets” that are limited to 280 characters. Twitter also allows users to post photos and videos.
As a for-profit company, Twitter makes money by monetizing tweets, meaning it sells advertising based upon the volume of Tweets. The more tweets that are sent, the more money Twitter makes.
And business is good—very good. In the third quarter of 2020 alone, Twitter received an estimated $936 million in revenue and $808 million of that came from advertising.
Twitter also proudly states that it monitors tweets on its platform and has a “no-tolerance policy” when it comes to Child Sexual Exploitation Material (also known as “child pornography”). This is a comfort. It also makes for good marketing and certainly helps promote the Twitter brand.
If the information contained in the last paragraph were true, then we could all go home and live happily ever after. Unfortunately for anyone with children, Twitter’s self-proclaimed “no-tolerance policy” can fairly be characterized as a sham. The truth is that on any given day there are countless child pornography images tweeted, traded, exchanged, and bought and sold on Twitter.
And Twitter knows it.
The Story of John Doe
Our client, who we will call John, was a 13-year-old boy who met a beautiful 16-year-old girl online—or at least that’s what he thought. The truth is that we don’t know who, exactly, this person really was. The “girl” sent him sexually explicit photos of “herself,” or at least that’s what “she” told him, and “she” said that “she” would send more if he would send “her” explicit photos of himself. He did. The exchange escalated. “She” persuaded him to have his 13-year-old friend send additional explicit photos, which he did. Then over time the “girl’s” requests turned into demands for ever-more explicit photos of the boy and his friend. The “girl” even threatened to tell his baseball coach, his pastor, and his parents if he didn’t comply. Eventually he ended his communication with “her.”
His mother never knew. His classmates never knew. No one ever knew.
That is until the worst day of his life. Two Twitter accounts—perhaps the “girl” who extorted him—shared a compilation video of John’s explicit photos on Twitter. The photos and video were child pornography, which the law calls child sexual abuse material. His classmates and friends at school saw them. His teachers saw them. As you might expect, John was shamed, bullied, and mocked at school. Eventually a parent notified the boy’s mother that her son was contemplating suicide. She took immediate action notifying local law enforcement and school officials.
Twitter’s Ineffective Reporting Feature
On January 21 and 22 of 2020, John and his mother submitted two complaints to Twitter through its content-reporting interface about the child pornography of John that was being circulated on Twitter. Twitter responded with an automatic message stating “We don’t tolerate child sexual exploitation on Twitter” and that they would review the content that was reported. Next, Twitter responded asking him to prove his identity by sending a copy of his government issued ID, which he promptly did. On January 26, due to Twitter’s lack of action, John’s mother followed up with another email to Twitter asking that the sexually explicit images of her 13-year old son be immediately removed.
Now the incredible part. On January 28, Twitter sent John an email stating:
Thanks for reaching out. We’ve reviewed the content, and didn’t find a violation of our policies, so no action will be taken at this time.
If you believe there’s potential copyright infringement, please start a new report.”
Incredulous, John responded immediately:
“What do you mean you don’t see a problem? We both are minors right now and were minors at the time these videos were taken. We both were 13 years of age. We were baited, harassed, and threated to take these videos that are now being posted without our permission. We did not authorize these videos AT ALL and they need to be taken down.”
Twitter ignored him and the child porn videos remained live. In just the two days after John first contacted Twitter demanding removal, the videos had accrued over 167,000 views and 2,223 retweets. The videos remained live another seven days after this.
It was only after John’s mother persuaded a friend of a friend who was an agent with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to contact Twitter that the videos came down.
Twitter Must Be Held Accountable
Some might be tempted to write this off as a “that’s terrible, but accidents can happen and we should give Twitter the benefit of the doubt”. Well, no, not so fast.
First, videos of the two boys may still be circulating in Twitter-world and are almost certainly alive on the internet at large. How many screen captures occurred after Twitter refused to remove the child pornography? The children suffered immense and irreparable harm after
Twitter was put on notice. And Twitter—supposedly operating under the well-touted “no tolerance” policy—significantly increased and magnified the harm by flatly refusing to remove the videos after they were told and explicitly KNEW this was child pornography.
By the way, under the law, all child pornography is illegal contraband and the mere possession of child pornography—witting or unwitting—can get you serious jail time. But apparently not if you’re Twitter.
John and the other 13-year old boy have sued Twitter in federal court in San Francisco. But here comes the really shocking part of this sad tale.
Twitter claims that it is absolutely immune from liability for its behavior in refusing to remove the child pornography and for any injury to the kids.
“NO,” you think, “how can this be true?” Let me quote one single sentence submitted by Twitter as it asked the judge to dismiss the case against it:
“Thus, the law does not punish a defendant [Twitter] for participation in a lawful venture with sex traffickers, or knowingly but passively receiving the financial benefits of sex trafficking.”Defendant Twitter, Inc’s Notice of Motion and Motion to Dismiss Plaintiffs’ First Amended Complaint; Memorandum of Points and Authorities in Support Thereof at p. 14, John Doe #1 and John Doe #2 v. Twitter, Inc., (Case No. 3;21-cv-00485-JCS)
What Twitter characterizes as a “lawful venture” is in fact the knowing dissemination of child pornography. In what can only be characterized as stupefying arrogance, Twitter claims it’s above the law. It cannot be held accountable. Too bad for the boys. Twitter thinks it can get off scot-free.
Twitter’s Commitment to Profit Above Child Safety
As John’s lawyer, one thing I can say with certainty is that Twitter’s “zero tolerance policy” is worthless noise and little more. At any given moment there are countless child pornography images circulating on Twitter’s platform. And when confronted with a clear instance of child sex exploitation on its platform, it chose to do nothing. Rather than address the very real problems with its platform and practices, Twitter is trying to prevent the children who were harmed in this case to even have their day in court. These are not the actions of a responsible corporate citizen with a “zero-tolerance” policy for child sex exploitation. They are the actions of an arrogant corporate giant committed only to profit and believing it will never be held accountable.
Will Twitter get away with it?
Ultimately, that will be decided by our judicial system. But count me in John’s corner.
Our legal team is committed to standing with the survivors of Twitter’s dangerous platform and policies until real accountability is established.