Twitter honchos to be called in front of UK Parliament in wake of rape threats

(L-R) Mary Macleod, a Conservative member of parliament, Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, Stella Creasy, a Labour and Co-operative member of parliament, and Caroline Criado-Perez, co-founder of the Women's Room, pose following the presentation at the Jane Austen House Museum on July 24, 2013 in Chawton, near Alton, England. Chris Ratcliffe / Pool via Getty Images

The bosses behind the social media site Twitter are to be called in front of British lawmakers after a string of high-profile women were subjected to threats of rape and other vile abuse on the social networking site.

The country's "Culture, Media and Sport" parliamentary committee will ask representatives of the site to explain how it intends to protect users from harassment or abusive behavior, its chairman said Tuesday.

The action comes after campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez received a barrage of threats to rape and kill her following a campaign to have a woman's picture printed on a new banknote. Her success led to the announcement last week that Pride and Prejudice author Jane Austen will grace England’s ten pound notes starting in 2017.

Women who spoke out on Twitter in support of Criado-Perez were subjected to similar abuse. Stella Creasy, an opposition Labour Party lawmaker, was twice threatened with rape late Monday.

London’s Metropolitan Police said Tuesday it was investigating "an allegation of malicious communications" against Creasy.

Detectives have also arrested and questioned a 21-year-old man from Manchester over some of the messages sent to Criado-Perez. And on Tuesday authorities in London said they had also arrested at 25-year-old man for threats against the women.

The two Twitter accounts — @rapey1 and @KJHUJGYFTRRFYGH — that tweeted threats to sexually assault Creasy were suspended Tuesday.

Although it is not the first public outcry over online bullying, the depth of the misogyny and sexual violence used in the latest episode has appalled and infuriated users.

"When women get it, it's just because they're women who are speaking out,” Caroline Criado-Perez told NBC News’ partner Channel 4 news. “It's not to say men don't get abuse — but it's the type of abuse and the meaning behind it, the desire behind it — which is to shut us up.”

An online petition urging Twitter to introduce a ‘report abuse’ function received almost 90,000 endorsements less than 72 hours after it was set up.

In response, Twitter said it would include a button for reporting abuse within every tweet — a function already available on its iPhone app.

In a Monday blog post entitled “We hear you,” Twitter's senior director of trust and safety, Del Harvey, said it was "not blind to the reality" that some users would use the service to post abuse.

Twitter’s spokespeople did not respond to a request for a comment from NBC News on Tuesday.

The U.K. parliament’s Culture, Media and Sport Committee had already planned to investigate the wider issue of online abuse in October. However, committee chairman and lawmaker John Whittingdale said Tuesday that among a number of social media brands would be now called to appear at the inquiry, including those from Twitter.

Yvette Cooper, Shadow Home Secretary for the opposition Labour Party, wrote to Twitter’s UK bosses on Sunday criticizing their “inadequate” measures to tackle the problem.

“I urge you to go further and ensure that Twitter carries out a full review of all its policies on abusive behavior, threats and crimes, including more help for Twitter users who experience abuse, a clear complaints process and clear action from Twitter to tackle this kind of persecution,” she wrote.

Writer Laurie Penny is among other women to have received rape threats on Twitter.

“Businesswomen, women who play games online and schoolgirls who post video-diaries on YouTube have all been subject to campaigns of intimidation designed to drive them off the internet, by people who seem to believe that the only use a woman should make of modern technology is to show her breasts to the world for a fee,” she said in an article about her experiences.

The misogyny storm follows similar public disgust in Britain over racist messages sent to black soccer players and deaths threats sent to U.K. Olympic diving bronze medal winner Tom Daley.

However, the sheer volume of material posted by users — 400 million tweets are posted worldwide every day — creates a logistical hurdle in attempts to eradicate malicious messages.

It also poses a headache for law enforcement officials in deciding whether online abuse should trigger prosecution, or simply be ignored.

“I think we’re in the very early stages of figuring out how this type of thing should be handled from a social point of view, a cultural point of view, and an enforcement point of view,” said Jeremy Caplan, a professor at the City University of New York graduate school of journalism. “The challenge is balancing the openness of the platform with the platform’s increasing power and significance as an international communications medium.”

Texas teenager Justin Carter spent nearly five months in jail held on $500,000 bond after posting on Facebook, two months after the Sandy Hook massacre, that he was thinking he would “shoot up a kindergarten,” which his attorney says was “clearly sarcasm.”

David Allen Green, lawyer at firm Preiskel & Co, successfully overturned a conviction and $3,000 fine imposed on a British passenger who Tweeted a joke about blowing up a snow-closed airport.

He said the abuse against Criado-Perez was “clearly vile,” but added: “There is a consensus that something must be done but there are no easy solutions. It is important that we don’t rush into a solution that creates more problems.”

Whittingdale, the lawmaker, acknowledged the challenges, but said: “Just because it’s hard, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to tackle it.”