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A series of threats and abusive messages aimed at prominent women in the U.K. is putting Twitter in an awkward spot. Those ugly tweets were sparked by the news that Britain plans to put the face of Jane Austen on a new 10 pound note. It's hard to understand why this much-loved author would inspire over-the-top vitriol, but when it comes to Twitter it shows that the company, as it gears up to go public and expand its brand around the world, is increasingly running into cultural and legal hurdles that challenge the networks ethos of free speech.

Here's NPR's Steve Henn.

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: Earlier this year, Caroline Criado-Perez led a successful campaign to keep non-royal British women on the country's currency. Then last week, shockingly, the 29-year-old activist and blogger became a target of an organized barrage of hate speech on Twitter.

CAROLINE CRIADO-PEREZ: I think I just feel under siege because it has been going on for five days now and it has been so relentless.

HENN: That was Criado-Perez speaking last week on the BBC.

CRIADO-PEREZ: You know the threats have been so explicit and so graphic that obviously, they've sort of stuck with me in my head and have really put me in fear, I realized.

HENN: Rape threats, death threats, insults of every kind poured in. Criado-Perez complained to Twitter but little changed. When Stella Creasy, a British MP published an op-ed saying Twitters lack of response to this torrent of hate itself was an abuse itself, Creasy became a target.

STELLA CREASY: I am still receiving rape and death threats today. It's not Twitter, it's not the platform itself that is making people do this and persistently do this. It is people who are idiots and people who may well be escalating in their violence and aggression towards women.

HENN: But Creasey says that doesn't let Twitter off the hook. She's demanded that Twitter do more to help law enforcement when there are specific threats of violence. She's asked that Twitter make reporting abuse easier and respond to complaints faster, and do more to help end harassment on the platform when it becomes so intense that it's aimed at silencing dissenting voices.

While other Western democracies censor hate speech, the U.S. does not. Here awful, hateful, even execrable things are constitutionally protected, at least until they cross that line and become specific threats or are so irresponsible they put someone's life or safety in danger.

Navigating these kinds of conflicts falls to Del Harvey.

DEL HARVEY: I am the senior director for Trust and Safety at Twitter.

HENN: Harvey has been at Twitter since 2008.

HARVEY: I was the 25th person at Twitter. The entirety of spam abuse and policy was me.

HENN: Unlike Facebook, Twitter doesn't ban bullying. It doesn't try to stop people from saying hateful, mean, even terrible things. But Harvey says its policies have evolved quite a bit in the last five years and they're not universally understood. Last week, as she fielded complaints about the threats and abuse in Great Britain, she heard this a lot...

HARVEY: You allow this kind of behavior on Twitter, this kind of behavior is OK. And it's not.

HENN: Twitter's Help Page made it clear targeted abuse and real threats of violence are forbidden. But the page is kind of buried. So Saturday, Twitter amended its rules adding language on targeted abuse and harassment more prominently.

HARVEY: We've had a policy against abusive behavior and violent threats for some time, but we needed to make sure that was clear and easy for folks to understand.

HENN: The company is also rolling out new tools to make reporting abuse easier. Over the weekend, British police made several arrests linked to threats made on Twitter - possibly indicating increased cooperation from Twitter. Harvey won't comment on specific cases. However, it seems clear that the company is acting much more quickly in Britain to suspend accounts used to harass.

HARVEY: We've certainly built a platform that encourages open dialog and discussion all around the world. But if you are attempting to silence others, if you are engaging in this abusive and harassing behavior, we have, actually, never allowed that.

HENN: Harvey says there is no algorithm that can figure out if a nasty comment or threat was meant as a joke or is deadly serious, so teams of Twitter employees go through each account linked to abuse before it's banned.

Steve Henn, NPR News, Silicon Valley.

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