Legal opinion: When Twitter users fall foul of the law

By Susan Hall
19 Jun 2012 View Comments

Rarely does a week go by without Twitter being at the centre of a media furore over posts purportedly breaking the law and landing users in hot water. Last year, Manchester United’s Ryan Giggs’ name was all over the social media network, despite a legal ruling granting him anonymity in a case alleging he had an affair with former Big Brother contestant Imogen Thomas. More recently, a new low was reached when the woman raped by Sheffield United footballer Ched Evans was named on Twitter, despite the anonymity of rape victims being protected by statute.

And these are only the most high-profile cases. Libellous tweets are commonplace now, as are postings that infringe copyright or, like the cases above, ignore the rule of English law altogether. The “Twitter Joke Trial”, which saw Paul Chambers prosecuted after he expressed frustration with delays at Robin Hood Airport with a threat that even the airport regarded as “not credible”, has also fuelled anxiety among Twitter users.

Further reading

Chambers’ appeal against his conviction was turned down, but he was granted a retrial on 28 May after more than two years of legal wrangling.

So the thoughts of the most talented minds at Twitter HQ in California must be turning to how the micro-blogging site can best minimise the fallout from these legal issues. If they aren’t, they really should be. Not only is Twitter’s reputation at stake, but it faces the very real prospect of being the subject of adverse legislative focus. What’s needed are creative solutions.

Take the Ched Evans example. This was shameful for a number of reasons, most obviously the public attention and harassment brought to a rape victim. Why could Twitter not have set up a warning system, whereby a user tweeting that name immediately got a message warning them to delete the post? Any person who failed to do so could then have had their account suspended under a breach of Twitter’s terms of use policy.

Equally, people frequently retweet without thinking of the consequences. In days gone by, anyone with the power to publish legally-sensitive information to hundreds or thousands of people - journalists, essentially - was fully legally trained. Now people with sizeable Twitter followings can quickly disseminate potentially libellous or contemptuous information in seconds. More than a dozen arrests have been made already following the naming of Ched Evans’ victim and more are anticipated. The danger of Twitter being seen as an arena for people who want to undermine the rule of law is becoming pervasive.

What do cases like those involving Ched Evans or Ryan Giggs - or even QPR’s Joey Barton, who came close to libelling John Terry on Twitter - have in common, other than football? They remind us, or should, that we remain ill-suited to the world of social networking, where power to communicate information often comes without responsibility. This is a problem for which we should be thinking of a wider solution.

It would not be too bold for someone to suggest that children be taught about the power of Twitter and other social networks in school. Past governments have been pro-active in introducing citizenship classes. Now we are living more of our lives through social media, children should also learn about online ethics and the dangers of posting inappropriate content. This is relevant not just for Twitter, but also for Facebook and others, too.

All this is not to ignore the huge benefits Twitter has brought to society. It played a major role in the Arab Spring last year, helping pro-democracy activists in their campaigns. The site was also alive with people organising clean-up operations after riots in English cities in the summer of 2011. It would be bad PR for Twitter to be seen to be unduly censoring information posted by users with spurious justification. However, the site is no longer just a benign, not-for-profit micro-blogging platform. It is a major corporation with commercial ambitions and a reputation to protect. Stepping in to reduce the number of cases where users flout the law is the very least it should be doing.

Susan Hall is a partner and IT expert at law firm Cobbetts

• Do you agree that Twitter should introduce changes to its platform? Let us know by leaving a comment.

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