Can Twitter Survive the British Privacy Onslaught?

Monkeys Grooming

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.”

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