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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Please explain the monkey business

Please explain the monkey business

South Tyneside's action against Twitter needs further justification

Posted by Siobhain Butterworth, Tuesday 31 May 2011 11.30 BST

Twitter has handed South Tyneside council information about some of its users following the local authority's successful court application in California against the social network, for a disclosure order.

South Tyneside is in pursuit of the author of "Mr Monkey", a blogger who is said to have defamed three council members and a council official. A council spokesman said that the cost of this overseas adventure was around £75,000.

Much has been written already about whether Twitter should or shouldn't have provided details that may identify the users in question, but a policy of complying with court orders isn't exactly odious and, as James Ball points out, it appears that Twitter tells users when such legal actions are on foot so that they can fight the proceedings if they object.

An equally important question is whether the action against Twitter is a proper use of taxpayer's money. A spokesman for South Tyneside said: "The council has a duty of care to protect its employees and as this blog contains damaging claims about council officers, legal action is being taken to identify those responsible."

While council members and employees can bring defamation proceedings in their own name, as long ago as 1993 it was settled that public authorities are in an entirely different position to individuals when it comes to protection of reputation.

When Derbyshire County Council tried to sue the Sunday Times over allegations about its conduct the House of Lords would have none of it: "It is of the highest importance that a democratically elected governmental body, or indeed any governmental body, should be open to uninhibited public criticism," said Lord Keith. "The threat of a civil action for defamation must inevitably have an inhibiting effect on freedom of speech".

It has not escaped anyone's attention that similar objections can be raised to the legal proceedings brought by the council against Twitter. Moreover, since local authorities are not entitled to sue for libel, South Tyneside has some further explaining to do. In particular, how, and for whose benefit, will the information it has garnered from Twitter be used?

1 comment:

Andrew Powell said...

I have kind of touched upon this on my own site, and the problem you are having is like most cases on the internet in the fact no one knows which laws stand and which don’t. The trouble with the internet is that there are no borders so one law might not apply some where else and this is a prime example of this.

Now the question has to become in my mind is when is it time for someone to come together and discuss a set of laws for the internet to suit everyone. I know its going to hard to near enough impossible thing to do but something as big as the internet it needs it now.

The problem then becomes then though is the internet was brought together so people could share information freely amongst each other and if laws are put in place it might hamper that freedom some what.