Is Twitter Forced To Identify Anonymous Users?

How does one begin to ascertain the author of a tweet?  This was one of the defences which was used in Australia’s first twitter defamation case.  Wahlquist denied sending the relevant offending tweet.

Twitter have become well known for jealously guarding the privacy of the information their users entrust to them in their assurances  their online privacy will be protected.

In a ruling that has implications for freedom of speech and privacy, Twitter has been compelled to surrender personal details of an anonymous Twitter user pursuant to California Court order.

The case is an important precedent, being the first time Twitter has been compelled  to identify an anonymous user of their service in a procedural motion brought to further an online libel case.  The ruling was unique insofar as it raised the issue as to whether US courts will recognise privacy laws of other countries in arriving at rulings, in this instance EU privacy laws which give the right to persons to know the identity of those who criticise them.

Why did the councillors have to embark on proceedings in the United States?  Twitter doesn’t yet have a sufficient foreign presence to ground jurisdiction in a United Kingdom court.

Although Congress has enacted the Speech Act 2010 to prohibit enforcement of judgements obtained in foreign jurisdictions being recognised where they contradict First Amendment principles, this has no applications to such procedural motions involving obtain access to user details.

Senior Council officials of a local council authority in North-East England  had suspected that  a particular council member had been posting content critical of certain senior councillors but were unable to validate the identity of the person they suspected as being the author.  The local authority believed the statements rose to the threshold of defamation.

The Council commenced proceedings against Twitter, based in San Fransisco, in a Californian Court seeking an Order from a Judge to the effect that the user’s private details be disclosed to them, so that  their technical experts could analyse the information.  IP identities, email addresses and two related Twitter accounts were ceded to the Applicants to assist them in their quest to identify the user responsible.

No doubt there will probably be technical difficulties associated with the identification of users, and online defamation cases will still remain largely the preserve of celebrities protecting their reputations given the costs involved in defamation actions.

There is also the possibility of hackers hijacking Twitter accounts to add to the complexity. However anonymous users may start to feel a little less invincible for the content they post as a result of such court orders.

Twitter and computer mediated communication plays an invaluable role in disseminating information of all kinds, however when used as a tool to propagate has had catastrophic consequences.  It is nearly ten years since Megan Meier’s suicide in the US, a teenager who experienced distress over interactions with a person who turned out to be an anonymous user posing as someone else.

The councillor under suspicion for posting the defamatory tweets had of course denied authorship of the defamatory content.

This is the first time a person from Britain has launched proceedings in a US Court to compel Twitter to release the identities of an individual user.

The case signals to users that posting content online using an anonymous user name will not necessarily protect them from any legal consequences which flow from the content posted.

The precedent departs from previous British authority which held that tweets had the character of public information.

Related posts:

  1. Twitter Defamation in Australia
  2. Anonymous Online Commentary And Defamation
  3. Twitter Defamation – Cairns v Modi [2010]
  4. Do mobile phone users have a reasonable expectation of privacy?
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