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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Twitter Reacts to Anonymous Attacks on Westboro Baptist Church

The last few days have seen a flurry of Twitter activity from Anonymous, the hacker collective, and more recently, from Twitter itself.

Anonymous has been campaigning against the Westboro Baptist Church after its members threatened to picket at a vigil for victims of the Newtown, Conn., shootings, claiming “God sent the shooter” in retaliation for the fact that Connecticut has legalized gay marriage.

In response, Anonymous hacked into the Twitter and Facebook accounts of several Westboro Baptist Church members and tweeted information about members like their home addresses and telephone numbers, as well as the locations of the hotel rooms where they say church members have be en coordinating their protests.

As a result, Twitter suspended one of the primary accounts associated with Anonymous, @YourAnonNews as well as the Twitter account of Westboro Baptist Church spokeswoman Shirley Phelps-Roper, which had been taken over by Anonymous.

The move was a bit of an about-face for Twitter, which has largely played a passive role in allowing Anonymous to publicize its campaigns on the platform. Twitter spokesman Jim Prosser said the company would not comment on individual accounts for privacy and security reasons, but an Anonymous member posted an e-mail received from Twitter that said that their account was suspended “for posting an individual's private information such as a private e-mail address, physical address, telephone number, or financial documents,” referring to Ms. Phelps-Roper.

Suspending accounts has been a tricky issue for Twitter. Last summer, the company publicly apologized after briefly suspending the Twitter account of Guy Adams, a British reporter, who had been critical of NBC's Olympics coverage and at one point published the e-mail address of an NBC executive. In an online apology, Twitter's lawyer, Alexander Macgillivray, said it was “not acceptable” for Twitter to scrutinize Tweets and would only remove information if it received a report from a person whose private information had been posted.

Mr. Prosser, the Twitter spokesman, did not say whether Twitter received a report from Mr. Phelps-Roper, but quickly reinstated the @YourAnonNews account about an hour later.

By then, Anonymous members had already resorted to a back-up account. As for the reinstated account,  it not only emerged unscathed, it re-emerged with over 100,000 new followers.