Anonymous Critic Wins ‘Twitter-Squatting’ Dispute

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The second lawsuit over a case of “twitter-squatting” has ended just a month after it was filed. Coventry First, a company that operates in a controversial corner of the life insurance business, has backed off its demands to get the identity of an anonymous Twitter user critiquing its business.

Coventry First operates in the secondary market for life insurance policies, also known as the “viatical” business. That allows investors to essentially bet that a person’s life insurance policy will be collected earlier than expected, putting companies like Coventry First in the awkward position of profiting from the untimely deaths of its customers. The critic, who was operating with the Twitter handle @CoventryFirst but now goes by @CoventryFirstIn, wrote tweets that criticize this aspect of Coventry First’s business.

But Coventry First has backed off and dropped its lawsuit, according to a blog post published today by Paul Levy, an attorney with Public Citizen. Levy said in an e-mail to paidContent that he began representing the anonymous user behind @CoventryFirst when she reached out to him after receiving a notice of subpoena from Twitter.

Levy was set to file a motion to quash Coventry First’s demand for the user’s identity this morning, which he says could have resulted in the company being sanctioned for discovery misconduct. But late yesterday, Coventry First dismissed its lawsuit. Levy’s anonymous client also changed her account to be more compliant with Twitter guidelines–first, by changing her handle so that it wasn’t the exactly name of the company she was criticizing; and second, by adding a note to the account’s profile noting that it is a “Parody Site.”

As Twitter grows into one of the dominant platforms for online speech, how the company reacts to legal claims against its users–especially legally tenuous ones, like Coventry First’s claim that its trademark rights were being abused–is being closely watched. Generally the company has a good reputation for protecting its users’ privacy, including their right to speak anonymously.

In his post, Levy says that while Twitter certainly has the right to create its own rules above and beyond trademark law, he is worried those rules may be too “rigid” in that they urge users not to mimic the exact name of the company or person they’re criticizing. “[T]o the extent that Twitter’s policy prevents the parodic use of the mark as the Twitter name, it may hamper Twitter users who want to take advantage of the search function to bring their criticisms more forcefully to public attention,” writes Levy.

The @CoventryFirstIn Twitter account has only 16 followers. There’s little doubt that by filing suit, Coventry First brought more attention to the critic than she could have garnered by herself.

Coventry First didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment about the lawsuit. Twitter has a policy of not commenting on disputes regarding specific accounts.

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