Experts say a key point has been forgotten in the fierce debate about freedom of speech versus protection from online harassment after Breitbart contributor Milo Yiannopoulos was banned from Twitter for "abusive behaviour" following a series of venomous tweets against Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones.

"The social media platforms that we're talking about, whether they be Twitter or Facebook, Instagram or others, are all private [sector] companies," said Fuyuki Kurasawa, an associate professor specializing in global digital citizenship at York University in Toronto. "They are companies that are not bound by the same rules and regulations as public institutions."

Jones said Monday she had been bombarded with racist tweets following a scathing review of Ghostbusters by Yiannopoulos. He's accused of instigating the online attack. 

Caroline Sinders, a digital culture researcher based in New York, said she found it "fascinating" that Yiannopoulos's supporters were arguing that his right to free speech had been violated. 

"Free speech in Twitter, we think of it as like a public park," Sinders said. "But Twitter is actually like a restaurant."

Caroline Sinders

Digital culture researcher Caroline Sinders says she hopes Twitter will start giving specific reasons for banning certain users. (Caroline Sinders)

As businesses, social media platforms aren't obliged to keep anyone online and are bound by terms of service that users agree to but rarely read, Kurasawa said.  

Twitter's terms of service state: "In order to ensure that people feel safe expressing diverse opinions and beliefs, we do not tolerate behaviour that crosses the line into abuse, including behaviour that harasses, intimidates, or uses fear to silence another user's voice."

In a comment to Breitbart on Wednesday, Yiannopoulos denied he broke Twitter's terms of service and said the social media platform suspended his account for political reasons.

"They've made it clear that being gay and conservative doesn't get me past the velvet rope into their free speech club," said Yiannopoulos, who had more than 350,000 followers on Twitter. 

Like any other organization in Canada or the U.S., Twitter would be liable for legal action if it discriminated based on race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, Kurasawa said.

He was skeptical of Yiannopoulos's argument, noting this isn't the first time his Twitter account had been suspended. 

Fuyuki Kurasawa

The debate over the nature and extent of free speech on social media platforms has been ongoing since their creation, says Fuyuki Kurasawa, an expert in global digital citizenship at York University in Toronto. (Fuyuki Kurasawa)

"The idea that ... [Twitter and other social media] are biased politically in one way or another is really dubious because really, what they're biased towards is, you know, profit," Kurasawa said. "The last thing that they want to do is to alienate a substantial proportion of their potential or current user base," including people who are gay, conservative or both.  

In fact, he said, rather than silencing "free speech," Twitter has been widely criticized for being "overly tolerant of forms of racism and misogyny online."

"What should be remembered is that women and people of colour have been pointing out that this is a huge problem for Twitter for several years. This is not a new phenomenon," he said. 

'A perfect storm'

Social media guidelines about what constitutes harassment and abuse are vague, experts say. 

"The kind of enforcement of when you've crossed those lines I think is probably kind of ad hoc and a bit uneven," said Cara Zwibel, director of the fundamental freedoms program at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA). 

Cara Zwibel

Cara Zwibel, director of the fundamental freedoms program at the CCLA, says the issue facing social media is trying to balance people's right to express themselves with the right to be free from harassment and discrimination. (CCLA)

"If we were talking about someone without a celebrity profile who was experiencing this kind of, you know, harassment and racism, would there be the same reaction from the company?"

Kurasawa doesn't think so.

"I think that Twitter had no choice in this case because it was ... a public relations nightmare that was emerging online," he said. 

There are many people who are "spewing extremely offensive and damaging" tweets, Kurasawa said, but the difference in this case was broader public attention.  

"It's a perfect storm in a way, because Leslie Jones is a Hollywood star, there's a major movie, Ghostbusters, that has been released and that has received a lot of press coverage," he said. "Milo is also a figure with a massive following on Twitter and other social media platforms ... he's [also] very present in the media right now because he's attending the Republican National Convention in Cleveland."

But in most cases where harassment occurs on social media, there's no such spotlight so the abuse is more likely to go unpunished, Kurasawa said. 

In a statement emailed to The Associated Press after Jones spoke out, Twitter agreed with those who say it needs to do more to curb harassment.   

"We are continuing to invest heavily in improving our tools and enforcement systems to better allow us to identify and take faster action on abuse as it's happening and prevent repeat offenders."

Ghostbusters' Leslie Jones under hateful barrage on Twitter2:07

With files from Matt Kwong and The Associated Press