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Can Twitter Survive the British Privacy Onslaught?

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What is it that the British have against Twitter’s legal department? Not only did the company become embroiled in a legal controversy in Britain surrounding a court order gagging the press from naming soccer player Ryan Giggs as an alleged adulterer, but it went a step further by refusing to hand over the identity of the individuals who broke that restraint.

Now it seems that British lawyers have been on the offensive again. Over the holiday weekend, it emerged that Twitter has handed over the private details of at least one U.K. user, a controversial individual known as Mr. Monkey.

Since 2009, Mr. Monkey has been using Twitter to wage a war against local government representatives in the north of England — accusing members of South Tyneside Council of everything from rigging votes to taking drugs to cheating on their expenses. Under local laws, the targets of his claims want to sue him for defamation — except they couldn’t be sure who he was.

So they made a legal complaint to Twitter in California, aimed at finding out the identity of the person responsible. And while the company had taken no action in the Giggs case, it handed over Mr. Monkey’s details. And the individual in question, it turns out, was another councilor, Ahmed Khan.

On the surface it seems strange: Twitter held back in the Ryan Giggs case, and yet it seems to have done precisely the opposite with Mr. Monkey.

Given this apparent conflict, the rights and wrongs of the case are currently being argued in the media — and the general consensus seems to be that Twitter capitulated where it had previously stood firm. “Until now, Twitter has resisted releasing information about users”, chided the Telegraph.

Not everyone agrees, however. James Ball, a former Wikileaks activist, argues we should celebrate Twitter’s stance because the company works hard to protect users. Pointing to an incident where the company fought to unseal a court order forcing it to reveal the details of people behind Wikileaks-related accounts, Ball says Twitter’s action so far should be applauded, not jeered.

Twitter has gone further than any of the other big online organizations in sticking up for the privacy of its users – and has received virtually nothing but opprobrium for its efforts.

And it’s a fair point: Khan told journalism professor Kathy Gill that he’d been notified by Twitter that they had been asked to reveal his details — but he waived the opportunity to fight the order in California because he couldn’t afford the legal costs. So it seems that Twitter’s initial suggestion that it’s working to protect users first, remains relatively intact.

Will this change? It’s possible. The more popularity Twitter gets for being a source of gossip, the more scrutiny is likely to be applied to its privacy rules, and the more pressure it will be under to release particular details.

But there’s something else that may have a greater impact.

Britain has some of the most notorious libel laws in the world, and is often seen as a great venue for libel tourism — with plaintiffs from overseas using the English courts to punish people for making derogatory statements about them.

And it’s quite possible that suing Twitter in Britain may become a lot easier once its $40 million purchase of Tweetdeck is completed. Twitter is planning to open a U.K. office later this year anyway, but Tweetdeck’s London-based team suddenly gives Twitter a significant British operation. That means that not only will those making a complaint in Britain have some sort of local entity to name in legal documents, but they’ll also have significant assets that could potentially be taken by the courts.

Lilian Edwards, professor of e-governance at Strathclyde University in Edinburgh Glasgow, told me that any action could potentially result in Tweetdeck bearing the load.

“Even if Twitter only had a bank account in England, it could be seized,” she said. “Having more assets, e.g. offices, just makes it easier.”

11 Responses to “Can Twitter Survive the British Privacy Onslaught?”

  1. Hugo Brás Da Costa

    Every country has it’s own rules and laws. So, in a case like, which laws are prevalent: the webpage origin ones, or the complainers?

  2. I have kind of touched upon this on my own site, and the problem you are having is like most cases on the internet in the fact no one knows which laws stand and which don’t. The trouble with the internet is that there are no borders so one law might not apply some where else and this is a prime example of this.

    Now the question has to become in my mind is when is it time for someone to come together and discuss a set of laws for the internet to suit everyone. I know its going to hard to near enough impossible thing to do but something as big as the internet it needs it now.

    The problem then becomes then though is the internet was brought together so people could share information freely amongst each other and if laws are put in place it might hamper that freedom some what.

  3. Shakir Razak


    Twitter is no different to an Internet bulletin board, and those are liable, but with such easy account creation, look forward to it becoming a 4chan in micro.

    Structurally, anyone remember how youtube’s arrogant dismissive attitude changed towards rights-holders once it was bought by the multi-$billion backed google?

    Twitter shouldn’t be condemned or celebrated, it is a private company that intends to control most real-time communication across the Internet. We wouldn’t expect Indian companies to bypass our LAWs, so why do we others?

    Kind regards,

    Shakir Razak

    Anyone remember the kids who died after being taunted on myspace when that was on it’s anonymous ascendency?

  4. Prof. Peabody

    You are arguing a false equivalency. In the case of the gagging order on the footballer, the law itself is arguably anti-democratic/fascist/wrong etc. so Twitter is fighting identifying those individuals because they did nothing wrong.

    Mr. Monkey on the other hand is a troll spreading lies and defaming individuals by using the screen of Twitter privacy.

    Laws vary around the world of course, but most civilised countries would agree that if you are attacking/defaming others and spreading lies etc. that you have no right to do so anonymously, because it’s clearly unfair. On the other hand, most civilised countries would easily recognise the ridiculousness of trying to censor the Internet, to protect the privacy of rich footballers, when they are the ones that have committed the crimes, not those being silenced.

    The two situations are no where near the same thing in any case.

    • Bobbie Johnson

      I am not suggesting they are the same thing at all — merely coincidental in their timing. But I’m sure we will see more cases coming off the back of these two. As I mentioned previously, Twitter’s decision to hand over Mr Khan’s details was not because of some moral decision made about the state of the law, or the individual’s comments, but on jurisdiction. As a professor I’m sure you understand that ;)

  5. Although, I think it’s commendable of Twitter to protect users’ privacy, which makes sense for users who protect their tweets for example. Yet I also think people who are tweeting publicly should just have the courage to stand behind what they believe and their values systems with their true identities instead of using anonymity as an opportunity to defame others, hide or shield themselves from negative backlash, as what appears to be the case with Ahmed Khan.

    • Bobbie Johnson

      I think Twitter is not doing this because of the rights or wrongs of the individual cases, Elizabeth: in the Giggs affair, they were not sued in California AFAIK but in the UK. In the Mr Monkey case, Twitter told Khan they were being asked to give his personal details, and he chose to let them release his details without a fight.

  6. EuroFascism

    Twitter ought to remain as far as is possible from the UK. Action-at-a-distance would be worthy counsel to them. Once they set foot in the UK thy will weaken their position.
    Same goes for Sweden, except there Twitter wouldn’t even be asked for the details, they would simply be taken by surveillance of the account.