Twitter and Freedom of Speech

I do not know whether the person behind Mr Monkey was libelling councillors on Tyneside because I do not have inside information or access to evidence that either refutes or confirms the claims being made. Only time will tell. Although the Independent’s use of the term “whistle blowing” suggests that there is more to this than meets the eye. Are the officials at Tyneside council more concerned about shutting down a voice that exposes bad behaviour rather than libel? There are some pretty startling allegations being made about corruption on the Mr Monkey blog –  for example the one about postal voting is pretty eye-watering if it is true. If the blog’s author can substantiate the claims, then no libel has occurred as the truth is an absolute defence. And in exposing it, the author has done the people of Tyneside a great service.

Either way, the extraction of personal information from Twitter using the Californian court opens up Pandora’s box.

If the laws of libel have been breached, then it is only right that the plaintiffs seek redress from the offender. In so doing, freedom of speech has not been compromised as freedom of speech has never included the right to libel people. If, however, libel has not been committed, then the gaining of the personal information is a worrying precedent. Again, I don’t know the full details of what was put before the court, but it was clearly enough to warrant the owners of Twitter complying. And that readiness to comply is something that potential users who think it may be a useful vehicle for whistleblowing need to think about very carefully.

What is interesting is the scant detail needed to identify individuals. All that Twitter asks for when signing up is a name, email address and password. Yet from this, these people were identified. I suppose they used their real names and their real email addresses… I would have thought that someone setting up a whistle blowing blog and Twitter account would have taken more care to cover their tracks. I certainly would have done so. There’s no reason to make it easy for them.

That, then, would appear to be the lesson here. If you are a whistleblower and need to remain anonymous, give false information. Set up a disposable email address. Use an Internet Café when doing so and pay with cash. Nor would I use a platform such as WordPress.com for my blog as they will be too easy to get at. For the genuine whistle blower, this is a precedent that needs to be considered carefully. Those who wish to keep the sun from casting its harsh light on their murky affairs will do all that they can to prevent people publishing those details –  so they will use the law where they can to shut down sites and to obtain personal details so that legal intimidation may be used to silence you. ISPs and site owners will cave in, they have little choice in the matter. Hence, use offshore hosts and use every trick available to you to obfuscate your real identity.

Of course, it is entirely possible that libel has occurred in this case. There is a simple option then –  besides not having a Twitter account –  and that is; don’t libel anyone.

13 comments for “Twitter and Freedom of Speech

  1. Jeremy Poynton
    June 1, 2011 at 4:52 pm

    Anyone else find the site really slow to load? Most of the time?

    • June 1, 2011 at 4:59 pm

      No – seems fine from here.

      • June 2, 2011 at 5:41 am

        It was a little slow last night at about 5:30pm, but fine again at 10:00. Must just have been a local glitch.

  2. Scan
    June 1, 2011 at 5:09 pm

    Do you not think that this is the start of the attack on internet freedom due to the successful use of Twitter and Facebook in organising mass demonstrations and general co-operation in North African and Middle East this year? I think this is just the powers that be using small test cases to see how much leverage they can achieve before the big boys move in with blatant legislation.

    On 14th February in the House of Commons, Andrea Leadsom MP was already asking [William Hague]:

    “Thank you. Does my right honourable friend have a particular view on the way that the social networking sites have effected the direct action in Egypt and Tunisia? Does he think that it’s an unmitigated good, or is there a risk that rumours and false information could be spread that way and actually worsen the problems in the Middle East?”

    Start with a few “celebs” privacy issues, maybe follow it up with a council or two, then a couple of MPs, bring Julian Assange out for 15 minutes of hate, etc. etc…

    • June 1, 2011 at 5:47 pm

      Entirely possible. Governments hate transparency and the use of Internet media and the readiness with which it can bypass the usual gatekeepers cannot be something that they like.

      • June 2, 2011 at 5:42 am

        Yup, it’s not paranoia if they really are out to get you. And they really are out to rein in the Internet, mark my words!

  3. FlapJack Analog
    June 1, 2011 at 9:33 pm

    Good Idea on the disposable email. I do indeed find twitter impossible slow at times. They may begin to practice shutting the internet down in a matter of minutes.

  4. June 1, 2011 at 10:27 pm

    The only surprise in the Californian court’s order is that people are finding it in any way surprising. Just because it became technically easier to publish, didn’t mean it became a different thing legally. Libel is libel, breach of privacy is breach of privacy, whether published on Twitter, newsprint or goatskin. The impression of a brave new free for all was more to do with how many new media “publishers” are not worth suing. Poverty is freedom, in some ways at least.

    Usually, electronic communications leave a clearer audit trail than, say, a poison pen letter of the old school. Every time anyone worth suing posts or tweets they need to imagine they are mailing a note to everyone who *might* read it. Or perhaps even nailing it to the door of the High Court.

    Rather than looking for electronic exceptionalism, we should be debating what we should be free to say or write publicly by *any* means. That, and the cost of justice, is the real issue here.

    The medium is *not* the message, though we can hope the ease of the new media will shake up our thinking about the old, highly-controlled, ones.

    Let me kick off the debate. Personally, I would dispense with privacy and defamation laws. Let everyone publish what they want and pretty soon the likes of Ryan Giggs (whom I would not have been able to pick out in an identity parade until his lawyers accidentally made him famous outside sporting circles) will be able to dismiss every allegation, even the true ones, as “just more lies”. His wife can decide what to believe (probably whatever disturbs her life least) and other people will have to exercise their own judgement as – frankly – they should always have done. A man or woman’s honour will became valuable again, because it will determine whether s/he is *ever* believed.

    How liberating would that be?

    • June 2, 2011 at 5:43 am

      Very, but it would put many lawyers out of business, and…

      Ah. Forget that ‘but’. It’s a splendid idea! 😛

  5. C H Ingoldby
    June 1, 2011 at 10:52 pm

    I have no idea whether Mr Monkey’s particular claims of corruption are true, however, they have the ring of truth.

    I am friends with someone who was a councillor in the North East a long time ago and he was very informative about how the ruling party councillors treated the area as a private fiefdom, doling out patronage and receiving homage in return.

    Mr Monkey’s accusations accurately portray the mentality of many North Eastern councillors, even if the particulars are not true.

    Transparency is the only way to deep with the problem of rotten boroughs, as such, people like Mr Monkey should be protected. Let his claims be reputed if they are false, but do NOT seek to punish people for their speech. It starts with simply going after the fringe, but it very rapidly ends with any unpopular or inconvenient speech being shut down.

    Let the councillors of the North East and all the country have to answer to criticisms and accusations, not simply shut them down.

    • June 2, 2011 at 5:44 am

      It’s not confined to the North East, not by a long chalk!

  6. Uncle Badger
    June 2, 2011 at 9:14 pm

    JuliaM has beaten me to the draw. My experience of local politics in the SE of England suggests that council officials run the place more or less as they like, leaving councillors to get on with the business of making money and wielding patronage.

  7. Maaarrghk!
    June 3, 2011 at 6:53 am

    I wonder how much all this has cost the local council tax payers.

    It does seem rather frivolous, even if the allegations of libel turn out to be well founded.

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