The Problem With Twitter’s New Abuse Strategy

In an effort to cut down on abuse from tolls and spammers, Twitter decided to use a phone verification system. But this could result in unintended consequences.

Twitter has a fairly prevalent abuse problem. From a monumental number of spam bots, to problems with personal abuse and stalking, and government censorship by abuse reporting tools. Twitter has attempted multiple solutions to the problem, and now they’re attempting to use phone verification to stop spam.

Users who have received short-term suspensions will be required to verify their phone number with Twitter. This will enable Twitter to track these users, and stop them from creating multiple accounts, or spamming other users.

The problem with this strategy is that it is impacting users of the Tor Network since all accounts accessed through Tor are being flagged as spam. This is most likely because multiple accounts are accessing Twitter through the same exit node, and Twitter’s detection sees them as numerous accounts coming from the same destination.

In countries where social networks are blocked — and there are several — many activists use the Tor Network to organize and disseminate information. According to TechCrunch contributor Jon Russell, requiring such users to provide identifiable data puts them at risk when the very reason they use Tor in the first place is to keep a low profile.

What’s more, he wrote:

It isn’t just about the privacy minded though. Tor has been an important point of access for regular internet users in cases where Twitter and other social networks have been blocked. For example, in Turkey last year.

That said, there are no shortage of bad actors on Tor, and no shortage of banned users who would try to use Tor to continue whatever they were doing before the ban. Tor’s own FAQ page notes that certain users are directly using the service to flank bans:

Sometimes jerks make use of Tor to troll IRC channels. This abuse results in IP-specific temporary bans, as the network operators try to keep the troll off of their network.

However, the FAQ underscores the problem – banning an IP address does little to deter a troll, because an IP address isn’t representative of one individual.

Many such trolls routinely make use of the literally millions of open proxies and compromised computers around the Internet.

Twitter has been working hard to stamp out abuse on its network, and recently tripled its abuse reporting team in order to combat the multitude of problems it faces. However, forcing users to input their phone numbers to free themselves of a ban would be too easy to work around in western countries, where new numbers are readily available. Where phone access is more limited, like in Turkey, it could make it impossible to use Twitter.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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