The Witchfinder analyses Block Bot performance and finds the Bot is unable to process data promptly, partly due to API limits and partly due to further restrictions imposed after their Twitter ban. Worse it is not clear that ban was ever lifted.
In the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy there is a robot called Marvin the Paranoid Android. Watching the BBC as a child I remember collapsing in paroxysms of giggles as Arthur Dent called it an ‘electronic sulking machine’.
The joke was eerily prescient as the Atheism Plus Block Bot could easily be an online version of Marvin. Created, supposedly, to block ‘harassers’ on Twitter it has become a bizarre institution where random individuals are blocked with wildly accusatory hashtags for trivial reasons or none – often simply for politely disagreeing with the strange group of people that runs it.
Interested parties have asked me to perform a numeric analysis of the bot, using (of course) only publicly available data. The results reveal it is barely functional, possible grounds of complaint to Twitter for breach of the Terms of Service and apparently admitted ban evasion.
When I took a forensic snapshot of the Block Bot list on 2015-03-03 there were 12431 entries on the list. The Twitter API rate limits requests per user, varying by function. The rate limit for blocks is 15 per 15 minutes or 60 per hour per user. The time taken in days for a new user to block these people is – (12431/60)/24 = 8.63 days.
This means a new user hoping for ‘protection’ will be waiting for at least 8.63 days as the bot creaks under the strain created by its bizarre attempt at massive scale pre-emptive censorship.
The list as it stood on 2015-04-07 had 10979 names – which appears to show they have been purging accounts. There are many reasons for this – because of the load the Block Bot team have a second robot to watch for people on the list being suspended. Even so a new user would still require 7.62 days to block the whole list.
That would, of course be the case if the Block Bot was not subject to any other limitations. However as it happens, it is subject to further limitations imposed after Twitter suspended them in 2013.
This is a misleading statement. In fact, as they had admitted earlier it was not the Block Bot which decided to suspend its operation but instead Twitter suspended them and required them to change the Bot.
Why was the Block Bot suspended? Well, according to James Billingham’s blog, which he has taken down but I have archived, here, Twitter emailed him saying –
Your application was suspended from interacting with the Twitter API because it violates our API Terms of Service (https://dev.twitter.com/terms/api-terms ). Specifically, users are not given any input into whom they choose to block, causing user surprise. Furthermore this application, at scale, takes advantage of our automated spam detection systems to suspend users who have not violated the Twitter Rules. Please review our rules and make the necessary changes to bring your application into compliance. Once the application has been fixed to comply with our policies and we confirm these changes, we will reconsider your API suspension.
Please also keep in mind that registering new keys to bypass the previous suspension of an API key without our approval is a violation of our API Terms of Service and may result in the permanent suspension of this API key and any affiliated developer accounts.
Thanks for your understanding,
Twitter Platform Operations”
James claims further on in the blog that after agreeing to further rate limits and changes the application was unsuspended. The new limits included –
- ceasing to report ‘blocked’ users for spam
- throttling blocks to no more than 50 per 15 minutes globally across all subscribers
The second throttle further slows the blocking progress. Assume for the sake of argument 10 thousand or so blocking subscribers. At 50 / 15 minutes (200 per hour) it will take just over 48 hours to block the new blockee for all block bot users. So if sensitive sally is being ‘harassed’ and files a report she could be waiting at least 48 hours for ‘protection’.
At the time, according to the blog, the Block Bot used the user account name – @the_block_bot and James Billingham used the account name – @ool0n . And you know the thing about those accounts? They are both still suspended. James’ blog claims that Twitter approved his changes and re-enabled the API key …
… but if they did they must have suspended both accounts again thereafter. I myself use an API key and one thing I know is that you access your API key via your Twitter account. Which means that the original Block Bot API key under @ool0n must still be suspended too. I would ask James for comment on this but he claims he is being ‘harassed’.
How does Twitter respond if you register a new API key for a banned application –
“Please also keep in mind that registering new keys to bypass the previous suspension of an API key without our approval is a violation of our API Terms of Service and may result in the permanent suspension of this API key and any affiliated developer accounts.”
In fact on searching the Block Bot’s timeline your author found this –
The Witchfinder believes that this appears to be a very straightforward case of ban evasion and as the Block Bot team generally refuse to comment has decided to firstly report the application here and secondly email Twitter’s CEO and lawyer Dick Costolo and Vijaya Gadde. Their public email addresses are in the draft email below and I ask everyone to join in and report both via the platform form and the website –
REPORTING VIA THE FORM
Go to THIS URL – https://support.twitter.com/forms/platform
Choose the appropriate options –
- I’d like to report an application causing spam or abuse
- Give today’s date as the abuse is ongoing
- Give the application name as – @theblockbot
I used the complaint text below.
The accounts @ool0n and @the_block_bot were previously suspended in connection with an application which violated the API Terms of Service. The accounts remain suspended but they have re-registered as @oolon and @theblockbot . This appears to be prohibited ban evasion.
The application is used for targeted harassment. Whilst it purports to block trolls in fact prominent persons are accused of serious wrongdoing or crimes, or blocked explicitly for religious and political views. The bot also adds them to a searchable database at the website – www.theblockbot.com/check .
There have been many news articles about the bot’s inappropriate behaviour which are damaging to Twitter’s reputation-
REPORTING VIA EMAIL
To – firstname.lastname@example.org; Vijaya@twitter.com; email@example.com
Subject – !URGENT COMPLAINT – Banned Harassment Application Re-Registered
Dear Mr Costolo and Ms Gadde,
I would like to report the accounts @oolon and @theblockbot . These accounts are used to operated the Block Bot, an application which has previously been suspended from Twitter for breach of the Terms of Service.
The application was previously registered using the accounts @ool0n and @the_block_bot . These accounts remain suspended and it is a breach of Twitter’s terms to re-register an API key for the same use case whilst the old one is suspended. If we are mistaken please let us know.
The application was previously suspended for user surprise and mass reporting innocent users for spam. It is also used for target harassment on the basis of protected characteristics. It enables people to be reported for ‘blocking’ for alleged offences such as trolling. Subscribers to the application have the alleged ‘trolls’ blocked for them automatically and the database can be searched via their website – http://www.theblockbot.com/check/ .
However, grounds that have been used to block people include religious views such as ‘Humanist’ and indeed the application has attrached a great deal of negative media attention to Twitter. The articles below include eminent Professor Richard Dawkins criticisms of the ‘libel’ he has been subjected to after he was blocked for obviously untrue reasons such as racism and child abuse apologism. In short in addition to the previous concerns the application is being used for ongoing targeted harassment on the basis of protected characteristics –
Mr Costolo has previously made public comment that Twitter needs to improve its performance on the issue of online harassment – here is a chance. Given that this application seems to be a straightforward re-registration of previously suspended accounts it seems a simple case to deal with.