Twitter’s rapid growth raises regulation issues

The hugely popular micro-blogging site Twitter is a child safety and privacy disaster waiting to happen, according to online safety experts.

The site – which has had a yearly 974% jump in UK traffic alone and attracts between 4m and 6m people, including celebrity twitterer Stephen Fry – is open to abuse if it fails to effectively self-moderate.

Online safety experts have raised concerns and are calling for swift action to head off trouble for the fast-growing site, which already hosts brands such as British Airways, Dell and Penguin.

Twitter’s terms state users must be 13 or over, but it doesn’t offer a ‘report abuse’ button or explicit ways to flag offensive material or monitor sexually explicit and racist behaviour and links to adult sites.

new media age uncovered links to prostitution and escort services, cannabis seed shops and racist and pornographic material on Twitter. It’s also being used by escorts to alert followers of their locations, images and videos despite Twitter rules banning pornographic images. A group on Facebook directs escort services to Twitter where they can build their network without fear of being removed by moderators.

John Carr, who represents The Children’s Charities’ Coalition on Internet Safety (CHIS), said his concerns about the site’s lack of regulatory control would be raised at the next meeting of the UK Council for Child Internet Safety (UKCCIS). “Start-up companies come into the market with these products and it’s not regulated. No one will look at it until there’s a disaster,” he said.

Tom Watson MP, the minister for digital engagement – who is also the UK’s most active politician on Twitter – called on the site to self-regulate in a “timely manner”.

“Twitter is a relatively new but fast-growing company,” he said. “If it wants to maintain its reputation for quirky micro-blogging, it would be well served by sorting out its house rules on this sort of thing.”

John Whittingdale, chairman of the DCMS Parliamentary Committee, agreed Twitter should move to ensure safety on its site. “If Twitter is to be successful, it’s in its interests to make sure it’s policed,” he said.

Whittingdale said the sign-up process for Twitter, which doesn’t require users to enter a date of birth, was a problem. “Young people will always sign up to these sites, but other social networks actively identify people who are underage and remove them,” he said.

A spokeswoman for the Child Exploitation and Online Protection centre (CEOP) said Twitter’s stance was concerning but not surprising.

“The Home Office put out social networking guidance last year but it’s up to individual sites to follow any best practice,” she said. “Twitter should look into at least age verification as a token, especially as the site grows in the UK.”

A Twitter statement said, “We clearly state the age restriction and policy on deleting any content known to be created by a child under 13.”

Social networks Bebo, Facebook and MySpace all have in-house moderation teams and representatives on the UKCCIS.

Book publishing giant Penguin has more than 4,000 followers on its Twitter feed, but its digital marketing director Anna Rafferty said while it was happy being part of the site, it wasn’t yet comfortable putting its children’s brand Puffin on Twitter.

“Much of Puffin is for children under 13, so I wouldn’t want to do anything that encouraged them onto sites that were unregulated or we didn’t have control of,” she said.

Juice brand Innocent, which has close to 5,000 followers on Twitter, said it looked at the site as an open forum and accepted it was new and “open to anything”.

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