Americans tend to think of free speech as allowing us to say just about anything we want, minus shouting "fire" in a crowded theater or threatening violence. But does that mean you have the same rights on a social network, specifically Twitter? Hey, it's not a government entity, it's a company. So does this free speech blanket apply? Years ago when the FCC still held weight, George Carlin famously recounted the "7 words you can't say on TV" - is there a similar list of things you can't say on Twitter?
Well, yes and no.
Twitter does not mediate content. It doesn't matter who you are, whether celebrity, government agency, corporation or regular Joe, the micro-blogging service does not regulate what you say. But if one of its users reports you for violating one of the site's tenets, then you may be in trouble. Twitter isn't actively seeking out misdeeds by users, but if one is reported, it actively delves in and investigates. So there are things you can't say, even though the rules aren't always enforced.
Twitter's rules outline several things users are not allowed to do or say. Impersonation, harassment and abusive behavior, and posting private information are all straight-forward policy violations. Twitter can suspend users accounts for violations of these rules. The service may also suspend accounts in response to official requests from law enforcement or government agencies. Once Twitter is notified of tweets in question, it can then withhold tweets for that specific country.
Legal issues aren't always clear, though. International jurisdictional differences often lead to complications. For example, something that would be legal to say in America could be illegal in Germany (denying the Holocaust, for example, is legal in the U.S., illegal in Germany). If German courts prosecuted or users called out that activity, Twitter could suspend the user and remove those tweets from the stream in Germany. But if the tweets were posted from a place where they were legal, like here in the U.S., Twitter won't do anything for American streams. Free speech is a country-by-country issue, not a blanket Twitter policy.
Users can also be suspended if they tweet too much over an extended period of time. There's a 1,000 tweets per day limit on updates and if a user goes over they are automatically put into "Twitter jail" for several hours (BundlePost CEO Robert Caruso says he's been kicked off Twitter hundreds of times, specifically every Friday because he breaks the limit, responding to each one of his thousands of #ff mentions). The daily update limit is further broken down into smaller limits for semi-hourly intervals. Despite rumors stating otherwise, there is no way to request a higher ceiling on postings.
When it comes right down to it, though, there are three things pretty much guaranteed to get you kicked off Twitter:
1. Child Pornography: Accounts promoting or containing updates with links to the sexual exploitation of children are permanently suspended. It doesn't get more straight-forward than this. In America, anything under 18 is off-limits, and this rule extends globally.
2. Direct Violence Threats: Specific threats of bodily harm include details of how and when an act will take place. Posts that say a person will come to a certain spot at a particular time and be injured or hurt are clear red flags. Everything from terrorism and crime to bounties and beatdowns. It's all out of bounds.
3. Spam: Automated replies to people requesting follows or clicks, heavy linkage to promotional content. Sending these robot messages are one of the biggest no-nos. Fake followers are a big problem for Twitter, and many are spammers. It's unclear just how many of the 200 million tweets sent out every day come from bots, but that number is high.
How Does Twitter Catch Violators?
Twitter has no algorithim looking for specific words, no team of people trolling the site looking for violations. Instead the service relies on its 140 million users to monitor and report violations of its rules and Terms of Service.
Hey it's cheaper, and with no unified, global legal system, each country has its own interpretation of what's acceptable and unacceptable - regional legal counsels help the company mitigate cultural concerns. While algorithms exist for malware detection and phishing, the site looks to its users to determine what does and doesn't violate its terms. Every violation that is flagged is then looked at by Twitter's staff on a case-by-case basis. Most are false alarms, usually people reporting things they simply don't like or don't agree with. If Twitter does see a violation, it can suspend the account, sometimes forever.
What To Do If You Get Kicked Off?
So, what to do if you're suspended? Accounts nabbed for child exploitation are suspended permanently, without exceptions.
Accounts that aren't violating the child pornography rule are typically given abuse warnings. They may also be allowed to edit for parody, which means if an account is parodying a user or situation and is suspended (for example for impersonation), then that user has can label themselves as a parody in their bio to make it clear (here's the policy in detail). Once suspended, users are required to state that they will not break rules again before being allowed back on. Permanent suspension is incurred if they fail to do so.
Second chances are granted only for accounts temporarily suspended for minor offenses. But second chances usually don't mean just one second chance. If a violator is merely posting too much, and is put into Twitter jail, there is no cap to how many times they can be suspended and reinstated. However, if an account or user breaks major rules like implying violence or spamming and do not curtail their behavior, they will be permanently banned.
Rule of thumb: Follow the rules.