The trouble with LiveJournal

[For more cases of LiveJournal Abuse Team behaving abusively, check out http://ljabuse.blogspot.com/.]

For several years I was a paying user of LiveJournal. Now I pay for web hosting and run my own content management system. It’s not by choice; this is the story.

In a nutshell, following an altercation with a racist troll, LiveJournal suspended my account without warning, even though I had not breached their Terms Of Service. They didn’t suspend the troll’s account–instead, they announced that (contrary to their written terms of service) racist comments were in fact perfectly acceptable on LiveJournal.

Attempts at compromise to resolve the issue were ignored and rejected, even when I offered to delete offending comments. The money I had paid for the service they were refusing to provide was not refunded.

Please read the whole thing before leaping to conclusions. The situation is not as simple as it seems after the first few bullet points.

Here’s the story

  • LiveJournal user abark posted racist comments to the Boston community:

    “Are there any blacks or hispanics in Inman Sq???

    Round them up and find your laptop!”

  • [Note that as of 2005-04, abark decided to delete his trolling journal and create a fresh one as garubark.]

  • Someone replied to the effect that if they knew him in real life, they’d knock him out.

  • I noticed that he posts his full name, address and telephone number on his web site. It’s wasn’t hidden, either; you just clicked to his site from his LiveJournal page, then clicked on “Photography”, and there it was. I copied the information he had made public and pasted it into the thread.

    For what it’s worth, I did this to test John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory. The troll had been bothering people for a while, and I thought that if he was less anonymous, he might stop trolling. (It later turns out I was wrong about that, but there you go.)

  • Circa 2004-08-08 18:47 UTC, someone complained to the LJ abuse team. The abuse team didn’t bother to contact me in any way, and didn’t delete the comment the way communities are normally moderated; instead, they suspend my entire account. They left the racist troll’s comments alone, even though they are in clear violation of the LJ terms of service, which state:

    You agree to NOT use the Service to [...] Upload, post or otherwise transmit any content that is in LiveJournal.com’s opinion [...] hateful, or racially, ethnically or otherwise objectionable

    (Note also that he says himself, later in the thread, “And what makes you think I was trying to be funny?”)

    When a LiveJournal account is suspended, all comments ever posted by that account anywhere, vanish instantly. That means if you’re a LJ user, and if I ever posted anything in your journal or community, as of now it’s gone—the abuse team have censored your journal.

    Note also the statement in LiveJournal FAQ #106:

    Account suspensions are generally used by the Abuse team as a last resort. In most cases, a user will be provided with an opportunity to delete any content that is in violation of the Terms of Service before his or her account is suspended.

    This is clearly not the case; nobody contacted me in any way before the suspension, and I was not offered an opportunity to delete the comment before my account was suspended. I was logged on to instant messaging and accessible by e-mail at the time my account was disabled. However, the first time I knew the account had been disabled was when I hit refresh and my friends page vanished!

  • At 2004-08-08 19:07 UTC I replied to the LJ abuse team, pointing out that the information I posted had been published to the web in writing by the user himself, and hence was clearly not in violation of the TOS, which (as written) only prohibits publishing information about people without their permission.

  • Meanwhile, the troll posted a reply to the thread inviting people to pay him a visit. He goaded one of the participants who has HIV, revealing the fact to the community, and then posted about her on his own journal, describing her as “a cut up baby dropping whore with aids“.

    Meanwhile, his personal information was still right there on his web site, so he clearly didn’t care that it was public information.

  • At 2004-09-09 03:20 UTC the LiveJournal abuse team eventually replied to me. They come up with two attempts at justifying my account suspension:

    1. They said that it is forbidden to post personal identifying information about someone even if it is posted publically on their web site.

    2. They said that users must give permission separately for every different context where information is posted.
  • At 2004-08-09 16:05 UTC I replied and pointed out that the TOS didn’t say either of those things, so I could hardly have been expected to obey those rules. In fact, if you were to enforce those rules, the results would be ridiculous—if user ‘joeschmo’ posted that his real name was Mike Smith, and referred to himself by that name in his journal, and you then called him Mike Smith in another discussion, your account would be terminated without notice. Call me mathew anywhere, or mention my e-mail address, and you’re liable for suspension. Does that make sense? I think not.

    I also pointed out that the troll’s comments were clearly racist and in violation of the TOS, and that the abuse team obviously had to look at the thread to deal with the complaint, yet they didn’t suspend him for his breach of the TOS. I commented that the whole thing stank of selective enforcement. Finally, I offered that if they wished to revise the TOS in line with their claims about what was prohibited, I would gladly comply with the revised version—retrospectively, even, by deleting my comment.

  • At 2004-08-10 15:10 UTC the LJ abuse team replied to me again. They had another new excuse. They claimed that:

    …it is legally considered harassment to identify a user on the internet in such a way that a random third party reader could draw a definitive link between said person and someone in the real world.

    I Am Not A Lawyer, and haven’t paid one for advice, but informal comments from a lawyer suggest that their claim is false—that in identifying someone who was already publically identifying himself on the web, I had not done anything illegal.

    If what the LJ Abuse team were now saying was really true, ISPs would not have had to go to court to avoid being required to divulge information about their customers, and Yahoo Groups would be shut down for revealing people’s names when they join a mailing list.

    Looking at the legal definition of harassment, it’s clear that abark has not been annoyed, alarmed or caused any distress, based on his later comments in the thread and the fact that he continued to publish his address and goad people to visit him.

    The abuse team also stated that the racist comments were not unacceptable according to LiveJournal’s TOS.

  • At 2004-08-10 16:12:00 UTC the LiveJournal abuse team responded to a separate complaint from another user about abark’s racist comments. They told that user that the comments were not unacceptable under the LJ TOS, saying:

    The content posted is simply an opinion, and we allow the expression of a wide range of opinions on LiveJournal, as long as no explicit threats of physical harm are made against any particular racial, ethnic, or social minority.

    They added another rationale for my suspension: that my comment should not be allowed because the person identified would not be able to delete it.

    They also said that they were not allowed to discuss my termination with anyone else. (Well, isn’t that convenient?)

    At 2004-08-10 22:06 UTC I replied to the abuse team, stating:

    • That I did not believe their definition of harrassment (“identifying a user on the Internet”) to be legally supportable, and hence that that excuse was not satisfactory.

    • That if abark were to stop publishing his contact details and goading people to visit him, he could then ask LJ to remove the information from LJ, and they could then remove the information. None of that required either suspending my entire account, or pre-emptively removing the information in case he should one day change his mind.

    I told them that if they wanted the comment deleted, they could delete it themselves; censorship in LiveJournal communities is perfectly normal and acceptable, after all. I also told them that I wished to be credited for the time my entire journal had been unavailable.

    Finally, I commented that they should think long and hard before stating that racist comments are perfectly okay under the TOS.

  • At 2004-08-10 01:07 UTC I got another response from the abuse team. They said that they technically cannot delete individual comments, and hence must suspend entire journals for even the smallest infraction. They restated the original claim that I had not complied with the TOS prohibition on publishing information without the consent of the person concerned. They also stated that LJ will not refund people for service not delivered because their account was disabled for TOS violations.

    At 2004-08-11 14:38 UTC I reiterated that the TOS does not say that express permission is required (as opposed to implicit permission), or that permission is required separately for each specific context, and that the user had published the information himself publically on his own web pages linked to from his LJ profile, and challenged people to visit him since my comment, and hence clearly consented to the information being published, both before and after the fact—and that there was therefore no TOS violation.

    I also repeated my offer to comply retroactively with a corrected TOS that explicitly allowed racist comments and prohibited all posting of personal information even if the person concerned had published it in writing themselves.

    Also, since they mentioned that the community maintainer could have deleted the racist comments if he felt they were inappropriate, I suggest that they talk to the community maintainer about deleting my comment if they think it’s inappropriate.

  • At 2004-08-11 16:26 UTC, another e-mail from the abuse team. They went back to the “harrassment and invasion of privacy” excuse. I replied at 00:02 UTC and reiterated that my actions do not meet the commonly accepted legal definition of harassment, and that since the user publishes the information publically of his own free will, in writing, on the public Internet, before and after the alleged invasion of privacy, for all the world to see, that it is clear that there was no invasion of privacy.

    Of course, rules against “invasion of privacy” aren’t enforced when it’s abark posting about people’s HIV status in public forums.

    The Abuse team also stated that my account would be reinstated if I agreed to delete the comment. I reminded them that I had already offered to delete the comment if either (a) the troll’s account was suspended in accordance with the Terms of Service as currently written, or (b) the TOS was updated to reflect the actual terms of service—the section banning racist comments deleted, and the posting of information about someone else banned outright, even if the person concerned had given written permission for the information to be published on the public Internet.

  • At 2004-08-12 00:19 UTC the LJ Abuse team replied that they rejected my offers, and that their decision was “final and non-negotiable”.

    Accordingly, at 02:25 UTC I demanded a refund of the remaining portion of my LJ membership payment, as of 2004-08-08 when the account was improperly suspended, since they would not permit me to use my paid-for account in accordance with the Terms of Service as written.

So, that’s where we stand. LiveJournal is a safe haven for racist trolls, and you can taunt people about their being raped and infected with HIV without the abuse team enforcing the terms of service against you. But if you post any personal information about someone that they themselves continue to publish on their own web site for the entire world to see, your account can be yanked without notice.

To say that I am disgusted by the de facto policies of the LJ Abuse team doesn’t really cover it.

Issues

For clarity, here’s a list of the problems I see with how LiveJournal is handling things:

  • If the LJ abuse team object to a comment left in a community, they should delete that comment and send a warning note. They shouldn’t immediately go nuclear and suspend the user’s entire journal, particularly not for a paid user with no previous complaints against him, who clearly isn’t using the account to troll with.

  • If the LJ abuse team are going to suspend accounts without notice, they need to be able to respond to e-mail in less than 8 hours.

  • Posting information about person X that person X publishes themselves on their public web pages should never be a TOS violation; that’s just stupid.

  • The LJ abuse team should enforce all terms of service when they review a thread in response to a complaint; they shouldn’t be selective.

  • If the TOS is not in sync with how it is actually enforced (for example, if racism is now OK on LiveJournal as the abuse team claim), then the TOS should be updated. People cannot be expected to obey terms of service that are not published.

  • Similarly, if the FAQ says that users will be given an opportunity to delete comments before account suspension, then that policy should be followed.

  • Those who enforce the terms of service should not be anonymous; they should at least have a pseudonym.

  • There should be a complaint procedure for escalating issues when the user believes the issue has been dealt with improperly.

  • It is not acceptable to terminate someone and then keep coming up with new excuses for it. If the original reason doesn’t hold up, the account should be reinstated.

I also think that it is ludicrous to publish information publically on the Internet and then expect to control whether people are allowed to refer to it.

A few clarifications

  • Sure, if the guy wasn’t publishing his own name, address and phone number and challenging people to visit him, what I did would have been wrong. But given his own actions, I think LiveJournal’s position is asinine. I am not arguing for a general right to post other people’s personal information.

  • I also fully realize that LiveJournal’s TOS basically allows them to terminate whoever they like without reason. If they want to say “We’re terminating your account because we feel like it”, then that’s fine, end of argument.

  • Yes I realize that I have no legal case against LiveJournal. I’m not arguing that the way they are behaving is illegal, I’m arguing that the way they are behaving is ethically wrong.

  • Yes, I realize I’m incredibly stubborn. This is not news. You’ll appreciate it one day if I’m stubbornly on your side.

  • It’s not the decision that my comment should be deleted that I am objecting to. It’s the disproportionate response, the dishonesty of the TOS not reflecting actual policy, and the selective enforcement of the TOS to favor freeloading racist trolls over people who actually contribute positively to LiveJournal, both in terms of content and in terms of actually paying for the service! I also disagree with the bogus justifications that are being made for the decision. If the real reason for deleting the comment is (say) that they’re scared of possible liability if someone takes the guy up on his repeated offers and beats the crap out of him, then they should just say that and put a suitable clause in the TOS, and not keep coming up with after-the-fact rationalizations.

    If they wanted the post deleted, they could either delete it themselves, or ask the community moderator to delete it. They could even have contacted me and said “We’re concerned about legal liability, can you delete this?” and I’d have deleted it. They did none of those things.

  • Yes, I realize I probably sound really pissed off. If the LJ Abuse team’s first action in all cases is to suspend people’s entire journals without even contacting the owner, hence hiding all entries ever posted anywhere, then I daresay they get a lot of pissed-off-ness in their direction. And while I may be stubborn and pissed off about this whole thing, I did offering numerous suggested compromises—see below.

  • I realize most people would just do what they’re told and delete the comment. However, I feel I’ve suggested at least two perfectly acceptable compromises to LJ under which I would delete the comment: either they could revise the TOS to tighten it up and actually prohibit all posting of personal information, or they could start enforcing the TOS against the troll. The fact that they turned down both of those options I think speaks volumes about who’s being unreasonable here, and makes me uninterested in continuing to use LiveJournal.

  • Some people have suggested that if I gave in and got my account back, I would be in a better position to agitate for LiveJournal to address the issues raised. Well, that may be true, but the fact that I was a paid user since the early adopter days apparently gave my comments no weight, and frankly I don’t care enough about LJ to want to spend my time on some crusade to prevent the ironically-named Abuse team from being abusive.

  • Several people have complained about abark. The LJ Abuse team have said that they see nothing wrong with his postings.

Attempts at resolution

So, how could this dispute have been resolved? Here are various offers I came up with:

  • LiveJournal agree to ban racist trolling. (Or rather, agree to enforce the ban already in place.) Since the only reason I posted the personal identification of the troll was to stop him trolling, if they’d actually enforce the TOS as written and ban the troll, I’d be happy to delete the posting. I suggested this option, it was rejected.

  • I replace the information with a link to the web page containing exactly the same information, as published by the troll himself.

    I don’t think this would work, because the LJ abuse team would just come up with yet another excuse for why that wouldn’t be acceptable, so I didn’t bother offering up this solution.

  • LJ revise the Terms of Service to prohibit posting other people’s information under any circumstances, even if they’re publishing it in writing themselves on their own web pages and journal pages; and they delete the part about racism being against the TOS, so that the TOS actually reflects reality, or ban the troll. I then delete the comment in order to comply retroactively with the new TOS. Can’t be more reasonable than that, eh? Well, I offered to do this, and they turned me down.

  • The LJ abuse team just delete the damn comment as a normal community moderation task, like they should have done in the first place, and credit me for the days my journal was inaccessible and I didn’t receive the service I paid for. I suggested this option too, it was rejected.

Common responses defending the LiveJournal abuse team

“Everyone knows LJ will suspend you if you post personal information about someone.”

Maybe “everyone” knows it, but I didn’t know it, and it wasn’t in the TOS.

Even if it was unofficial policy, it was applied arbitrarily, on the personal whim of anonymous individuals.

“It’s about context.”

Yes, and the context was that the guy continued to point at his address after my account was suspended, and invite people to pay him a visit. He continued to post personal information about other people, and the abuse team did nothing.

“The TOS prohibits any posting of personal information about someone, public or not.”

Maybe it does now, but it didn’t at the time. Perhaps they have finally had a lawyer look at the document? If only they had done that at the time I’d have happily deleted the comment and the situation could have been resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. I made that offer, as I’ve already stated.

And again, even if it had been in the TOS before my posting, it’s an issue that LJ refused to act when the abark troll posted someone’s HIV status.

“LiveJournal were just worried about getting sued.”

If they had wanted to put in a clause saying “Anything which might get us sued is prohibited”, I’d have happily retroactively complied with it. I made that offer too.

“You shouldn’t have issued an ultimatum.”

I didn’t. I made many offers, at no time did I say any of them were final, or that there would be any consequences for refusing them. It was the LJ abuse team who issued the only ultimatum: do what we say or else, and we’re not going to discuss it.

They were the ones who broke off communication, saying they were unwilling to discuss the issues with me or anyone else.

“Even if the information was already public, that doesn’t give you the right to repeat it.”

That’s an interesting opinion. I think you’ll find that if you publish something publically on the global Internet, and then try and ban people from repeating it, you won’t have much luck. I believe it is unreasonable to imagine that you have the moral right to control the flow of information after you yourself make it public.

But regardless, the LJ abuse team is not there to enforce morality, so whether what I did was ethical is a whole separate discussion. The issues I’m concerned with regard whether what I did was prohibited by the terms of service, how those terms of service are enforced, and whether they are enforced fairly or capriciously.

So…

Think I’m in the wrong? Got a reasoned argument you don’t think I’ve addressed above? Let me know by e-mail.

Think LiveJournal are in the wrong? Let them know. For reference, it was support request #321889. But remember, they say they are “not allowed to” comment.

For what it’s worth, Brad Fitz says he has no idea what the LJ Abuse team do, and is concerned by their behavior and the tales of abuse he hears. Just not concerned enough to actually do anything…

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