Twitter sparks ID ownership storm

Tower Bridge

The @towerbridge feed, which now has a new owner

Designer and developer Tom Armitage found this weekend that Twitter IDs are very much not owned by the account holder. He set up @towerbridge in 2008, with the aim of ‘making bridges talk’. As Stef Lewandowski put it in a recent blog post, it was “a cute mashup between the publicly published schedule for the bridge and a bot that turned that data into tweets ... an interesting and funny way of humanising the day-to-day operations of the structure in a way that hadn't been done before”

This is all now gone. Twitter reassigned the domain to Tower Bridge Exhibition and Events, with merely a single email citing its terms relating to business names and logos, along with arguments centring on a “clear intent to mislead”.

Armitage noted that he was never provided an opportunity to clear up any potential confusion, and his account “didn’t pretend to pass itself off as a trademark, or a registered company, or as anything related to the exhibition that runs within the edifice. If it passed itself of as anything, it was the structure itself”.

Developer backlash

In a blog post, Clearleft founder Andy Budd said the incident has changed his relationship with Twitter, and notes that it serves as a warning that “we don’t own our online identities or the content we produce. We have few if any rights, and the companies behind these services can remove our accounts at will”. He added that the fact a site owner can “delete accounts at will is rather unsettling”, sending the message that you’d “better play nicely or we’ll expunge you from history”, and that networks operate under the presumption of guilt.

Developer Remy Sharp told .net he’s been wary of this issue for some time, ever since @oprah was reassigned by Twitter to the US talk-show host: “I get why Twitter did that, but someone was using @oprah before, and if that account was active, it really doesn't matter”.

In using @rem, he’s wondering whether Twitter will one day reassign his handle to the popular band, erasing his feed’s entire history, something Twitter’s lead developer a while ago said wasn’t possible — “he said they'd never take an active account” — but this clearly isn’t the case today. Sharp adds that it’s unacceptable the landscape surrounding usernames is so volatile: “I’ve gone round and round on how this could be solved, and I'm not at a solution yet, but it boils down to some decentralised system that we, and content producers, have full control of”.

One might also argue companies should be more respectful of users rather than capitulating to the demands of companies — first come, first served, unless a handle is confirmed dormant.

Bridging the gap

As for the involved parties, Twitter declined to comment for our story, but Chris Earlie, Senior Marketing Executive, Tower Bridge Exhibition and Events, revealed that dialogue has at least opened up between the organisation and Armitage, who will be invited to perform a Bridge Lift and is welcome to continue providing his bot under a different name.

On the decision to ask for @towerbridge, Earlie says that was “because that's what we are and that's what we thought people would search for... and I imagine Tom had the same idea”. On the switch itself, he says: “Tom is understandably shocked that Twitter has simply shut his service down. We contacted Twitter to say that Tower Bridge is owned and managed by the City of London Corporation and that we would need to attain the @towerbridge username, and perhaps the situation could have been handled more delicately on Twitter's part.”

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