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.