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US court orders Twitter to reveal user details
Samizdata




msg:4319305
 2:19 pm on May 29, 2011 (gmt 0)

Twitter has been forced to hand over the personal details of a British user in a libel battle that could have huge implications for free speech on the web.

The social network has passed the name, email address and telephone number of a south Tyneside councillor accused of libelling the local authority via a series of anonymous Twitter accounts. South Tyneside council took the legal fight to the superior court of California, which ordered Twitter, based in San Francisco, to hand over the user's private details.

It is believed to be the first time Twitter has bowed to legal pressure to identify anonymous users and comes amid a huge row over privacy and free speech online.

[guardian.co.uk...]

...

 

wheel




msg:4319308
 2:42 pm on May 29, 2011 (gmt 0)

What gives folks the right to privacy online when the same actions offline would result in charges?

And since when did the US start enforcing laws on US companies, for stuff that's completely UK based? I'm always amazed at how US regulators and courts seem to think that the internet means there's no boundaries - though this is the first time I recall it going into the US instead of outside of it.

albo




msg:4319550
 1:45 pm on May 30, 2011 (gmt 0)

To add to that, wheel, I'm curious as to what they'd gain by fetching the "name, email address and telephone number" when it is almost certain ANYone could get a TwitterId with the same.

There's certainly no guarantee of anyone to peep over the keyboard when someone signs up for a free Twitter account. Even an 8-year-old can apply. With a free temporary email account from bugmenot.com, it's so easy even a caveman could do it.

Sgt_Kickaxe




msg:4319569
 2:33 pm on May 30, 2011 (gmt 0)

Oops, I just expressed myself at how dumb this is, was that libel or am I really allowed to write/think/say what I want if I believe it to be true?

I also didn't realize UK law applied to US based actions but hey, talk about an uphill legal battle that if successful becomes an assault on free speech.

Hmmm, it looks like Google has several thousand requests for personal information heading your way Brett, this forum has libeled them many times with such words...

This news does one thing however, it reinforces the notion that you should NEVER use your real information online, EVER, because you just never know who's going to go after it.

wheel




msg:4319577
 2:50 pm on May 30, 2011 (gmt 0)

talk about an uphill legal battle that if successful becomes an assault on free speech.

It's mostly only the US that has this thing on free speech. I think many countries - even civilized, westernized countries - don't have 'free speech' embedded as part of their law and culture. Or at least they draw the line in far different spots than the US.

engine




msg:4319588
 3:14 pm on May 30, 2011 (gmt 0)

Surely, libel is libel, whatever media is used.

The interesting part is whether a media company reveals details of a user in another country.

Now that this has been done, it does open the doors for other similar requests to be fulfilled.

When extensive details can be revealed about a user, it's only the most savvy that may be able to satisfactorily obfuscate their identity.

Samizdata




msg:4319589
 3:17 pm on May 30, 2011 (gmt 0)

A follow-up article included this intriguing snippet:

The Guardian also understands that Google and Wordpress appear to have handed over user information related to the South Tyneside case last year.

[guardian.co.uk...]

The apparent difference is that Twitter obtained a ruling to allow the account holder to be notified (though this would almost certainly not be granted in a criminal case).

I also didn't realize UK law applied to US based actions

It hasn't since 1776 and is not about to resume anytime soon.

The superior court of California clearly has jurisdiction (California company, California server) and presumably the judge decided that the application was valid in California law.

It would be interesting to see the judge's reasoning, though.

...

wheel




msg:4319596
 3:22 pm on May 30, 2011 (gmt 0)

It hasn't since 1776 and is not about to resume anytime soon.

Sure looks like the US just did what they were told by a UK council. Reasoning aside, I'd have thought the US judge would've said "Tyneside? Is that in California? No? Alriiiighty then, we're done here".

badbadmonkey




msg:4319606
 3:35 pm on May 30, 2011 (gmt 0)

Oh nonsense wheel, give it up - a US [Californian] court will decide whether to assume jurisdiction or not based on the merits of the case and the particular law involved. Anyone may file suit, whether citizen of California or Tanzania. Over an issue involving a CA firm it's fairly obvious what they'd decide. If you disagree go become a lawyer.

walkman




msg:4319608
 3:40 pm on May 30, 2011 (gmt 0)

Looks like it wasn't challenged because of costs, one side spent $100+K of taxpayer money.
Also any legal disputes are supposed to be tried in California only as per Twitter's TOS, so the CA courts maybe had no choice?

brotherhood of LAN




msg:4319661
 6:26 pm on May 30, 2011 (gmt 0)

Surely, libel is libel, whatever media is used.


It surely isn't the 'wild west web' as much now, on a personal level though I'm not sure whether being allowed to anonymously post your thoughts online is a good thing. Why hide and blow your trumpet when you can back it up with your identity?

On the flip side, Twitter has been used politically and I wouldn't like to see anyone in North Africa 'reporting facts' being persecuted in their own country (and against their own country's 'emergency laws')

brotherhood of LAN




msg:4319691
 7:46 pm on May 30, 2011 (gmt 0)

[telegraph.co.uk...]

Just hours after the US based company caved into a legal challenge and agreed to release the personal details of an anonymous British blogger, a user taunted the authorities by posting the most detailed list of gagging orders yet.

....

But not all of the information appeared to be accurate prompting further fears that innocent people were being unfairly tainted because of the rash of secrecy orders being granted.

g1smd




msg:4319723
 8:57 pm on May 30, 2011 (gmt 0)

What especially stinks about this case, is that the individuals involved have apparently used large sums of taxpayer's money to take legal action. They should pay their own legal bills, not be funded by their employer - especially at a time when public services are being cut due to lack of funds.

toonarmy




msg:4319931
 11:29 am on May 31, 2011 (gmt 0)

The twitter bit is just the first part, what they are after is the details of the id for his blog, what's funny is that the local paper have almost named the person involved before its even proven that its him

toonarmy




msg:4319932
 11:31 am on May 31, 2011 (gmt 0)

forgot to add that the council state that they have spent under £75000 so far in costs

g1smd




msg:4320149
 7:17 pm on May 31, 2011 (gmt 0)

The national TV news interviewed the person alleged to have done it. It's all a bit odd. And the lawyers win again.

bakedjake




msg:4320221
 9:52 pm on May 31, 2011 (gmt 0)

And since when did the US start enforcing laws on US companies, for stuff that's completely UK based?


Twitter is a US company subject to US law. I'm assuming that the infringing data that was posted got posted and was hosted on a US based server.

The foreign entity brought suit in a US court because that where is Twitter is based. I haven't read the suit, but I assume the council sued twitter because of content posted on their site. Alternatively, they might have had a disclosure order from the UK and asked the US court to compel Twitter to disclose the information. The article is very unclear on this subject, but there are treaties and laws that govern how countries reciprocate court decisions.

There's nothing nefarious about this. Because Twitter is a US company a US court would have jurisdiction over a case where Twitter was a party.

Note that I'm not defending the libel laws, I'm simply stating that a US court would need to follow the law (including reciprocation of foreign court decisions where US companies are concerned) when making its judgement. The same thing happens in Canada every single day.

What especially stinks about this case, is that the individuals involved have apparently used large sums of taxpayer's money to take legal action.


Yes, I would find that offensive as well, but most municipalities indemnify their officials if they're acting in good faith.

bakedjake




msg:4320227
 10:10 pm on May 31, 2011 (gmt 0)

Ah. More details:

[thenextweb.com...]

The council in question, Tyneside, took the case to the legal superior court of California, which in turn issued a subpoena to Twitter on April 14th 2011.


On April 15th Khan was notified by Twitter of the subpoena and was asked if he wanted to dispute it in court. He declined. On May 5th, Twitter released the details.

An enormously significant part of this story, missed by The Telegraph’s original article, is that the user chose not to fight the order in court.


In summary, this is NOT a landmark case marking the end of free speech online. It is only a landmark of any sort in that it’s the first time Twitter has actually released user info without a user contesting.

Samizdata




msg:4320248
 11:39 pm on May 31, 2011 (gmt 0)

Despite the media hype, this case was never about free speech.

It was about anonymity online.

I'm not sure whether being allowed to anonymously post your thoughts online is a good thing

There may well be a debate to be had on the subject, though an opponent might quickly point out that you have made 3,500+ anonymous (and harmless) posts on WebmasterWorld.

Many web veterans are accustomed to general anonymity being available, forums and chatrooms have always used nicknames, and not so long ago kids were told not to give out their personal details on the various messengers.

FaceBook has shifted the ground somewhat, while in South Korea, as I understand it, websites are legally forbidden from accepting user-generated content without a verified ID.

Governments everywhere loathe anonymity, for obvious reasons.

This news does one thing however, it reinforces the notion that you should NEVER use your real information online, EVER, because you just never know who's going to go after it.

I quote Sgt_Kickaxe to illustrate a school of thought that has a fair amount of support.

it's only the most savvy that may be able to satisfactorily obfuscate their identity

And I quote engine because he is undoubtedly correct.

Some people, perhaps misguidedly, use Twitter as an online substitute for grafitti - an ancient form of publication that is not exempt from legal action, but one where anonymity is very much the norm.

Those people should now consider that Twitter itself will not oppose an application to reveal their personal details. The applicant in this case was apparently a UK body, next time it could presumably be a Chinese or Iranian one.

Assuming the person named in this case could afford to travel 6,000 miles and hire lawyers to fight the subpoena, the question arises as to how he would have been able to preserve his anonymity while doing so.

The good news is that, whatever happens, he won't face a firing squad.

...

badbadmonkey




msg:4320339
 4:27 am on Jun 1, 2011 (gmt 0)

Many web veterans are accustomed to general anonymity being available, forums and chatrooms have always used nicknames

Even in the US you only have a veneer of anonymity, unless you're making things really difficult and tunneling your traffic through several different countries via a VPN.

If you libel me, wherever you are, I can ask a US court to subpoena WebmasterWorld for what details they have on you - your IP at least, which if an ISP address will then allow me to sub-poena your ISP in your country for your identity. Even if you are using a VPN, those respectable ones based in the US or Europe are similarly subject to the law.

Those people should now consider that Twitter itself will not oppose an application to reveal their personal details.

The issue is not about Twitter. It was sub-poena'ed. It has no choice. It apparently contacted the subject and asked if they wanted to fight it; what more can you ask?

The good news is that the internet does not quite allow people to get away with defamation or disparagement with complete impunity - rather, like always in a just society, you should be prepared to defend anything you say as reasonable opinion or truth.

Samizdata




msg:4320373
 8:22 am on Jun 1, 2011 (gmt 0)

The issue is not about Twitter

It is not about libel, either.

Twitter will obviously comply with (or appeal) the order of a California court, and they understandably don't want to be dragged into disputes between "customers".

But the suggestion appears to be that Twitter itself did not oppose the application at all. And if Twitter did oppose it, what arguments were used, and why did they fail?

Details remain sketchy, but one might conclude that any application to a California court for personal information about a Twitter user anywhere in the world has a high chance of success as long as some grievance is claimed.

What I am interested in is where the line is drawn.

If an official from Iran, Libya, North Korea, or [insert country of choice] made a similar claim, would there be a similar result? What if someone criticised the king of Thailand in a tweet?

Anonymity is often seen as desirable when used by dissidents in other countries.

...

badbadmonkey




msg:4320384
 9:02 am on Jun 1, 2011 (gmt 0)

Twitter apparently offered the user the chance to fight, before complying. I am not a lawyer, much less one in California, and cannot talk sensibly about CA court procedures or law. What you, and a lot of the knee-jerkers that tend to respond with cynicism to these issues, are saying reduces essentially to a lack of faith in a court. Well, here's some news: you don't have any better alternative. That's the law. And if my fate is in the hands of any institution, probably better a Californian court than most other authorities on the planet.

The radical examples of Iran et al aren't relevant at all. One might hope the same court would reject such an application, either for lack or merit or the fact that a US court has confidence in UK court procedures but not whatever passes for "justice" in North Korea. Twitter is subject to US libel laws, nothing else.

Samizdata




msg:4320389
 9:16 am on Jun 1, 2011 (gmt 0)

What you, and a lot of the knee-jerkers that tend to respond with cynicism to these issues, are saying reduces essentially to a lack of faith in a court.

I did say in an earlier post that the judge's reasoning would be interesting.

I do not have blind faith in any court.

The radical examples of Iran et al aren't relevant at all

As I said, details are sketchy, but the implication in other posts has been that the order was granted because it was not opposed by anyone.

I suspect that the jjudge's reasoning would shed more light, but I haven't seen it discussed.

...

incrediBILL




msg:4320390
 9:28 am on Jun 1, 2011 (gmt 0)

The real issue here is if stupid people didn't say stupid things they wouldn't have to be revealed by a court in the first place.

Sometimes the best course of action is to keep your mouth shut.


... or use anonymous proxies and fake email accounts when accessing twitter if you do intend to shoot your mouth off stupidly.

It's not rocket science to avoid getting easily caught, what a dummy!

Samizdata




msg:4320570
 3:04 pm on Jun 1, 2011 (gmt 0)

Sometimes the best course of action is to keep your mouth shut

I know this to be good advice, but will add some more details of the case anyway.

The original suit was filed in San Mateo county on 6 April 2009 and concerns a WordPress hosted blog, which has not been updated since July 2009 but which is still online.

The plaintiffs complain of libel, false light invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligent infliction of emotional distress. They request a jury trial.

The material complained of is extensive and scabrous. It is not difficult to see why the individuals in question might want to take action.

All parties being in England, this would normally be done in English courts. It has been suggested that the suit was filed in California solely to enable identification of the author, who could then be sued in the English courts.

What happened next is unclear.

The California court seems to have ordered WordPress to release details, but these were presumably insufficient for identification - the Twitter subpoena seems mainly designed to assist in identifying the author of the WordPress blog.

Details from five Twitter accounts were released to the plaintiffs, who are examining the data. Whether any tweets will be added to the suit is unknown.

The individual identified as operating two of the Twitter accounts denies involvement with the other three accounts or the WordPress blog.

He seems to have deliberately identified himself, and happens to be a political opponent on the same council. So far, he has apparently not been directly accused.

It's not rocket science to avoid getting easily caught, what a dummy!

Assuming they have the right man - not yet established - he didn't make it that easy.

My guess is that no libel case will be pursued in USA whatever the outcome.

It is a little local difficulty in England, the libel capital of the world.

...

g1smd




msg:4320694
 7:31 pm on Jun 1, 2011 (gmt 0)

England, the libel capital of the world.

Ain't that the truth.

And for those who don't know what goes on here, I can recommend watching the recent BBC TV series "See you in court!".

Demaestro




msg:4320748
 9:19 pm on Jun 1, 2011 (gmt 0)

I wonder:

1) If they identify the twitter account and associate it to a person how can they prove he/she made the tweet? "I left my phone at the table at the bar and someone must have picked it up and tweeted something"

2) If they identify the computer used to make the tweet how can they identify the person who used that computer. "My GF and her friends were all playing around the computer that day"

If I were the person that made the tweet I wouldn't make any statements and I would have my lawyer press for proof that the tweet was in fact "by my hand"

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