As Twitter reveals a user’s identity, what now for free speech?

30 May 2011

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Twitter’s controversial decision to reveal an anonymous user’s identity is a wake-up call to social media users everywhere that they really have to think twice before posting.

Remember the old sayings, "there’s many a slip between cup and lip" or "loose lips sink ships"? Many of us grew up in an age where discretion was a cherished quality.

However, the rise and rise of social media in the last six years changed everything and the ability to update your status on Facebook or post a tweet on Twitter saying exactly what’s on your mind or what you think of so and so on the box has created a sort of psychological compulsion to say it, no matter what ‘it’ is.

We all do this: you could be watching the news, a weekend talk show or a current affairs show and religiously – because our social bubble (in our heads) expects it – you blast off that tweet excoriating the host’s lack of comic timing or the views of a politician or the lousy lip-synching of a pop star. It’s about saving social face, but it’s an invisible compulsion, you begin to value your worth by your output and the ensuing ripples and reactions.

Well, that’s over.

End of tweet innocence

OK, not completely over as the Twitter machine will beat relentlessly on, but the events of recent days do make you question just what could happen if you tweet sends your victim or the protagonist at the heart of your rant running for the lawyers. An age of innocence is possibly ended.

I always wondered what would happen in the blogosphere, for example, if some of the vitriol contained in rants about this product or that person actually landed a blogger in trouble. Newspapers and publishers have libel insurance, private individuals do not.

Aside from a few highly publicised court cases, the bloodletting in this regard has been remarkably restrained when you think about the swelling population of bloggers and social media users.

But the decision by Twitter to bow to pressure and reveal the identity of an anonymous user raises a Pandora’s box of legal issues and implications for any individual.

In traditional media, there is a golden, cherished rule never to reveal one’s sources. What makes social media that bit different?

The differences are manifold. In traditional media, you have a duty of care to try and put a balanced perspective in place, you don’t pick sides and you endeavour to get the facts right. Lessons can be hard learned over a career lifetime to avoid libellous situations.

But in social media, the companies behind the networks don’t employ professional journalists but instead are relying on millions of ordinary users to self-publish. Many of these users are exactly who they say they are and speak their minds quite clearly and openly. But few are schooled in how to avoid legal situations. There’s the case of the Twitter user who, angry at Robin Hood International Airport in the UK being closed, tweeted his frustration, jokingly threatening to "blow the airport sky high" was arrested for "sending a menacing electronic communication".

These networks also make it easy for people to be anonymous. And now a line has been crossed.

Twitter’s decision to bow to legal pressure and name a UK local councillor, Ahmed Khan, should be a warning to users that when it comes to choosing between protecting identities of those who wish to remain anonymous, a precedent has been set.

Khan, who vehemently denies he is the author of a blog that has made a series of unfounded allegations against council leaders in South Shields, was notified by Twitter to let him know his identity was being revealed. He was given 68 pages of data that he says he can barely decipher.

“It is like something out of 1984,” Khan told The Guardian newspaper. “If a council can take this kind of action against one of its own councillors simply because they don’t like what I say, what hope is there for freedom of speech or privacy?”

The situation occurs at a pivotal point in the history of social media and privacy in light of the use of gagging orders or super-injunctions by celebrities to protect themselves from negative publicity. Footballer Ryan Giggs is seeking to unmask Twitter users who revealed his identity online as being among a number of celebs who took out super injunctions.

Twitter’s decision to reveal Khan’s identity after South Shields’ council took legal action sets a precedent that helps the microblogging service in the short term but could end up being a long-term problem. A precedent has been set.

I doubt these legal issues will cause the chattering classes to pause mid-tweet.

But in my mind, Twitter’s existence as a hallowed place where people could speak freely has been tarnished.

The only route forward for Twitter going forward from this is to apply a similar policy to Facebook that tries to ensure you are who you say you are, requiring genuine email addresses and age data.

The age of anonymity is over.

Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com