A Farewell To Arms – Is Twitter about to make its greatest “Fail” yet and hand over user details to CTB?

After CTB issued an application in the High Court to force Twitter to hand over the details of any users who had tweeted his name so that he could eventually sue them, many expected that the Californian Media Giant would simply ignore the Court Order granted by the Judge (which wouldn’t be enforceable in the US) and carry on business as usual, with its vaunted commitment to free speech very much intact but its sprit of anarchy slightly bruised.

We’ve waited since Friday 20th to hear how Twitter would react to the Court order and wondered if this would turn into a real united stand between Twitter and its Users against the world. What we got was very different.

Earlier this week, the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, warned  that people who breached injunctions online were in for a “rude shock”, going on to say that :

“It is quite clear, and has been clear for some time in a number of different spheres, that the enforceability of court orders and injunctions when the internet exists into which information can be rapidly posted, that presents a challenge.

“But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the right course of action is to abandon any attempt at preventing people from putting out information which may in some circumstances be enormously damaging to vulnerable people or indeed, in some cases, be the peddling of lies.”

It now seems clear that at least some of the users of Twitter who have named CTB will face either an action for contempt of court or be sued for breach of privacy. It was bound to happen sometime. However, we still had a stoic californian hero who was beyond the reach of such petty attempts to run down its “people”, who would never do something so corporate as to comply with an (entirely correctly-granted) order of the English High Court where it simply didn’t or couldn’t apply to them, right?

No. In a statement yesterday, Tony Wang – head of Twitter’s European Operations said that the site would turn over user information to the Court if it was “legally required to do so”. Apparently. the site will notify users in advance so they can fight the Norwich Pharmacal/Motley Fool application in Court and put in their own evidence before the data is handed over. In Wang’s words, “platforms have a responsibility not to defend that user but to protect that user’s right to prevent itself”. Defending yourself is one thing, but if you do choose to go on the record, won’t CTB then know exactly who you are?

So what does this mean? They’ll hand over the data if legally required to do so, but how can they be legally required to obey an order which simply doesn’t apply to them? Compliance would set a dangerous precedent for the future. Although this may be a gesture to their new neighbours on the Shoreditch Roundabout, what kind of message will it send to Twitter’s users? Will those users leave the service en masse? I doubt it, but you never know. When the first claim forms are issued, civil disobedience may not last that long.

There may be another way  – Twitter could simply delete the accounts in question to remove the information from the site. Then of course, the users could set up new profiles, this time with an axe to grind against Twitter as well as CTB

It look as if at least some of the CTB Tweeters are going to get their comeuppance in some way, shape or form. Remember that the injunction must have been leaked by someone, despite its secrecy. That person certainly deserves their punishment for ignoring a Court order – they knew its terms and disobeyed it anyway. Getting to the real culprit (Spartacus??), however, is going to be a long and costly business and I’d be surprised if CTB really wants to fight a war on every front.

So we find ourselves at a crossroads. Twitter should hold its nerves and develop better blocking technology to ensure that they comply with the takedown provision of the Electronic Communications Regulations and can remain free to rely on the defence of being a “mere conduit”. If not, the net will become regulated and regulated fast by a Judiciary that does not yet really understand it.

If Twitter does give in where it doesn’t actually need to, then it’s finally admitted that it’s time to grow up and abandon the social media dream.  I’d like to think that that dream can last a little longer and that the “marketplace of ideas” remains open for business, even if it is under much stricter controls.

Social media businesses are encouraged to fail as part of their evolution, but this fail may be a step that forces social media to regress into itself for some time to come, and just when it was starting to mature. Give it the chance to grow a conscience and let the wisdom of crowds hold sway for a little longer. Privacy matters, but not at the cost of all else and not when the details are out there already.

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