Twitter: the end of privacy as we know it?

Dr Paul Reilly, University of Leicester

In May 2011, Eric Schmidt used his keynote speech at the Google Big Tent UK to criticise those governments who pass ‘foolish’ laws designed to protect privacy in online spaces. The former Google CEO did not refer directly to the UK in his speech but the implicit message to fellow keynote speaker Jeremy Hunt, UK Secretary of State for Culture was clear: government measures to protect privacy are unlikely to succeed in the social media age.

So has the Internet, and micro-blogging site Twitter in particular, killed privacy? Well, not quite, though it clearly helps if you have lots of money and access to legal expertise. This may seem counter-intuitive given the recent spate of superinjunctions that ultimately failed to prevent revelations about the private lives of footballer Ryan Giggs and former RBS Chief Executive Fred Goodwin entering the public domain courtesy of Twitter and the use of parliamentary privilege by two MPs.

However, there were two landmark legal cases in the past month that I think may prove significant as the UK parliament considers the balance between the right to privacy and freedom of expression on sites such as Twitter.

First, South Tyneside council used Californian law to force Twitter to hand over user details relating to a blogger (“Mr Monkey”) who had used the site to post libelous remarks about several of its members. The council lodged a subpoena in San Mateo County that requested access to the name, address and registration information of “Mr Monkey,” who was linked to five Twitter accounts used to defame several councillors.

While the council has yet to take further legal action against the user alleged to be “Mr Monkey,” the case suggests that those who use Twitter to break super-injunctions or for the defamation of individuals can no longer assume they are immune from prosecution for such transgressions.

The cost of South Tyneside’s subpoena has not yet been disclosed but is said to be in the region of several hundred thousand pounds. This would appear to suggest that the right to privacy and the ability to respond to defamatory remarks might come at a very high cost on sites such as Twitter compared to traditional media outlets.

However, the second significant legal case involving the use of Twitter in the past month suggests this may not hold true in all cases. Ian Puddick, a plumber from North London, was cleared of using Twitter to harass millionaire city broker Tim Haynes after finding out about his affair with his wife. During the trial Haynes claimed that the publication of sexually explicit emails detailing the affair had caused significant personal distress to not only him but also his family, friends and colleagues.

Mr Puddick argued that he had a right to expose Haynes’s behaviour and his misuse of company expenses during the affair. After District Judge Elizabeth Roscoe dismissed the claims of harassment, Mr Puddick claimed: “it is a victory for free speech.” On this occasion the right to freedom of expression was clearly considered inviolable despite claims that it had implications for the privacy of another individual.

What these two cases demonstrate is the extent to which UK privacy law remains in flux. It will be interesting to see what proposals emerge from the privacy committee set up by the UK government in the wake of the superinjunction furore.

Clearly, it is too early to make predictions on what this review will mean for privacy in the Information Age. However, I think it would be premature to say that Twitter has killed privacy completely. The perceived anonymity of the micro-blogging site does not necessarily mean that users can act with impunity, as demonstrated by the South Tyneside case.

Personally, I would still be wary of what I post on Twitter. As one colleague remarked at a recent conference: ‘The Internet never forgets.’

Dr Paul Reilly is Lecturer in Media and Communication, at the University of Leicester. His current research focuses on the role of Web 2.0 technologies in the ongoing processes of conflict transformation in divided societies. His previous research focused on the website strategies adopted by civil and uncivil actors in Northern Ireland and the visibility of terrorist websites on Internet search engines.

3 Comments

  1. Chris Williams
    Posted 16/07/2011 at 10:53 | Permalink

    Of course if free speech is really free there should be no consequences other than revealing you are a twit on twitter. One of the conditions for defamation should be that that the statement was published in a serious publication upon which the reader should be able to rely that it has verified the truth of the statement. Everything else should be considered tittle tattle and therefore not defamatory. If the courts accept that the Internet is merely title tattle that would solve the matter at a stroke. I would also argue that it should include the gutter press. Were it made a requirement that a newspaper must register as a news outlet (a reliable source of information that can be sued for defamation) then “newspapers” could seen for what they actually are. A newspaper could then be automatically deregistered if it consistently ran stories that were insufficiently truthful. I would like to see the headline in the Independent or Guardian announcing “Daily Mail deregistered to trashpaper by Ofcom”.

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  2. Chris Williams
    Posted 14/07/2011 at 22:50 | Permalink

    Robert Maxwell famously used English libel laws to intimidate anyone who criticised him, even the press. He did this with the threat of large amounts of money it turned out was just a paper shell. Injunctions have been taken out by companies to prevent their illegal activities being published. The fact that these activities were supported by the English legal system demonstrates how little it has to do with justice. For hundreds of years the rich have been able to use the legal system to oppress the poor. Only legal aid has changed that and now a right wing government seeks to return us to the good old days of no legal aid, not that there was ever legal aid for the repressive libel laws.

    Now we have seen the age of Twitter put an end to this legal injustice. Of course it also means an end to privacy for the rich but the press ended privacy for the poor many years ago so that just equals things out a bit.

    Should the Monkey man be free to libel the councillors? We only have their word that it is libel as we only had Robert Maxwell’s word. Why are they so sensitive. It’s only Twitter. Do they have something to be afraid of? Would they respond to the Daily Mail in the same way whose motto is “we only tell the truth by accident”? To spend hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money to find out that Mr Monkey is listed as M. Key, 25 Jungle St. South Tyneside is form of corruption in itself. A wilful misuse of public funds to harass critics or a chase a wild goose.

    It matters not what is written about me on Twitter or the Daily Mail or the Sun as no one I have any respect for would take anything they said seriously. But if Twitter can bring down crooks and destroy the corrupt then all too the good. What does it say about our society if gossip factories can do this whilst the legal system strives to protect them.

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    Paul Reilly Reply:

    Hi Chris,

    Thanks for your extremely interesting response. I think you have raised perhaps the most pertinent point about the Mr Monkey case, namely the use of the public purse to pursue an expensive defamation case against a number of councillors during a period of spending cuts – this would appear difficult to justify in the public interest.

    Another important point that I think is worthy of further exploration is the gossip factories on Twitter that you referred to – while recent events may suggest that this leads to greater scrutiny of those who wish to conceal corruption, I also think it is important to note that the Twitter rumour mills also help spread misinformation (e.g. see the number of celebrity deaths that have been hoaxed on social media) and that most users tend to follow celebrities or opinion leaders (suggesting that the ‘Twitterati’ have an important role in information dissemination on Twitter). I think the press coverage of the role of social media in civil unrest in countries as diverse as Iran, Moldova, and Egypt over the last few years has tended to over-emphasise the role of social media as a tool for rebalancing power relations and neglected the role of opinion-leaders – see the ‘Twitter Revolution’ meme as an example of this. While social media has clearly been a game-changer for some, it is perhaps premature to conceptualise it as a’ silver bullet’ for corruption amongst elites and institutions. Take China for example, its use of bloggers (the so-called 50 cent army) to create online propaganda and counter the claims of human rights activists suggests that elites are likely to find ways to respond to (and discredit) the use of social media to scrutinise their activities. This is of course a direct response to material available in the public domain but the blocking of access to ‘harmful’ material has also been found in China. There are also evidence that elites in democratic contexts are paying attention to this issue. The increasing importance of reputation management in the United States has also been illustrated by the growth of an industry that specialise in removing ‘harmful content’ from online spaces.

    What will be interesting to see is whether this Privacy Committee tries to reconceptualise privacy in the era of social media in its report. I just wonder whether the South Tyneside case might lead to further legal cases in California that involve the prosecution of people who make allegations about elites, in effect leading to further oppression of the poor that you referred to in your post. Watch this space….

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  3. Jackson
    Posted 14/07/2011 at 16:29 | Permalink

    The web doesn’t just make dissemination of information easier (and thereby present problems to privacy). It also makes it much easier to publish anonymously. People say things on the web they wouldn’t dream of saying in person or printing. I’m all for free speech. But rights carry responsibilities. And the danger with the web is it risks being free speech without the consequences.

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    Paul Reilly Reply:

    Hi Jackson,

    Thanks for your pertinent post. I agree with your analysis in relation to the balance between rights and responsibilities amongst social media users who post material that they would often choose not to communicate in any other forum. I think this reflects another emergent trend in studies of young people who have integrated social media into their everyday lives – research in the United States shows that many college students are aware that they create content on these sites that constitutes a form of ‘overdisclosure’ and that might embarrass them in the future. However, the calculation amongst many of these students appears to be that by the time they are pursuing their chosen career many of the people who will seek to employ them will have had similar experiences mediated on social network sites and therefore their overdisclosure on these sites will be of no consequence. Not sure that i am entirely comfortable with this idea as it does seem overly reliant upon the assumption that individuals should (and do) express themselves on social media without fear of any negative repercussions (or as you put it, without awareness of the consequences).

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