Posts Tagged ‘twitter’

UK Court Rules 7-Word Tweet Libeled Lord

Tuesday, June 4th, 2013

Gavel coming down on twitter bird, combined with British flagLord Robert Alistair McAlpine was libeled by a tweet from Sally Bercow, the wife of the Speaker of the House of Commons, according to a May 24, 2013 decision of UK’s High Court of Justice.

With a question of damages still pending, the parties terminated the litigation with a settlement on undisclosed terms.

Eric P. Robinson blogged that the case “shows — if anyone still had doubts — that tweets can indeed be libelous.”

“In short — appropriate for Twitter — a libel is a libel, no matter how few characters it contains,” Robinson concluded.

A BBC report in 2012 about alleged sexual abuse in a Welsh foster-care home in the 1970s and 80s communicated an allegation by a victim that one of the abusers was a leading Tory politician, but no particular person was named. Social media speculation following the BBC report then centered around Lord McAlpine.

Then came the libelous tweet from Bercow:

Why is Lord McAlpine trending? *Innocent face*

It turns out Lord McAlpine was not an abuser. The ensuing scandal led to the resignation of the head of the BBC.

It appears Sally Bercow abandoned Twitter.

The case is a good example of how defamation can happen indirectly, and by implication. It also provides a good point of contrast with American law – UK law on libel is much stricter and not subject to the strong protections that we have under the First Amendment on this side of the Pond.

For a full unpacking of the facts and law, read Robinson’s thorough post on Blog Law Online.

Australia’s Attempts to Curtail Twitter Bullies Ineffectual

Wednesday, September 19th, 2012

The Canberra Times is reporting that the leader of New South Wales is asking the Australian federal government for tighter controls on what are called Twitter “trolls.”

The request is in response to an incident in which a star rugby player received an anonymous vulgar Tweet regarding his mother, who died of pancreatic cancer.

To put this in context, online abuses that get almost universal disapproval here in the United States – but that are protected speech under the U.S. Constitution – are actually out of bounds under Australian law, according to the newspaper:

A Twitter user or troll found to ”menace, harass or cause offence” using the social networking medium could be jailed for up to three years.

A person can be prosecuted under this section if they use a ”carriage service” – essentially, any communication device – to pressure another person, in a way that would be regarded by ”reasonable persons” as being ”menacing, harassing, or offensive”.

There are also laws at state level that can be used to stamp out offensive online behaviour.

But there’s one major caveat. Because these “trolls” set up bogus accounts to do their dirty deeds and then deactivate them quickly, it seems that no one has actually been prosecuted for their Twitter behavior.

Twitter Deserves Continuing Credit for Defending Privacy in Harris v. N.Y.

Saturday, September 15th, 2012

gavel coming down on twitter birdFrom what I see, Twitter is doing a strong job of standing up for user privacy in the case of the criminal prosecution of Malcolm Harris. In that case (CMLP summary) New York prosecutors are trying to get Twitter to hand over information about Harris, who has been charged with disorderly conduct relating to an October 2011 Occupy Wall Street protest on the Brooklyn Bridge.

Yesterday, Twitter handed over the requested information pursuant to a court order.

There has been a lot of traffic suggesting that Twitter gave up rather than continue to fight (e.g., Betabeat: “Twitter Caves”). But that’s unfair. Twitter is trying to get review from a higher court. And the records they turned over are sealed until September 21, when another hearing is set.

Twitter has done the right thing. It is right for Twitter to resist. But it is also right for Twitter to comply with the court order to turn over the information. (Even though the court was plainly wrong to issue the order.)

What Twitter should do – and what it is doing in this case – is use all available legal process to protect user privacy. Twitter should not, however, violate the law in order to thwart the courts and prosecutors.

Many reporting on the case have said something to the effect that Twitter decided to turn over the information rather than face expensive fine for being held in contempt of court. (EFF said something similar in an otherwise great post on the case.) Saying that makes it sound like Twitter cheaped out. But, as I see, and as I would see it if I were advising Twitter, the problem is not the expense, it’s that refusing to comply with the court order means Twitter itself is violating the law.

It’s true that reporters will often take a contempt citation and go to jail to protect an anonymous source. When they do, it’s civil disobedience, and it’s often heroic. I hate to say it, but the stake are simply lower here. Anonymous-source-based journalism outed Watergate. It’s cultural and societal importance looms very large. Journalists have tried to get shield laws passed to prevent contempt being used to compel the identification of anonymous sources. And shield laws have been passed in many states. For the remaining gaps, brave reporters have often acted in defiance of the courts and the law to uphold free-press values.

The battle Twitter is fighting is different. It’s more of a general internet privacy issue, and while important, it’s a different ball of wax. It’s worth fighting for the cause in the courts, in the legislatures, and on the international level. But I’m not convinced there are fundamental rights here which necessitate disobeying court process.

London Tweeting: The Crown Prosecution Service Talks Twitter

Thursday, May 10th, 2012

Flag of the U.K.A worthwhile article from the U.K.:

Social media and the law – How to stay out of trouble when using Twitter and Facebook

The story points up the many differences between the U.S. and U.K. when it comes to freedom of speech. Tweeting can quite easily constitute a crime in the UK, whereas the First Amendment in the U.S. makes it near to impossible to go to jail for a tweet.

Frank Ferguson, district crown prosecutor from Norfolk County in the East of England, identifies three types of social-media crime cases:

“Firstly, where people have committed an offence through abusing or bullying someone else, so that could be harassment or racism.

“Then we have the types of postings where the message results in an offence, such as someone is having a party, thousands turn up and criminal acts follow at that party.

“Thirdly we have seen many cases where someone has committed and offence and then goes on to social media to brag about what they have done. This is an example where it can help us to track someone down.”

Not that the first category of speech – with more – can’t constitute a crime in the U.S. because of the broad application of the First Amendment.

Also, as discussed in the article, a civil libel case in the U.K. can ruin a defendant - especially if the plaintiff is wealthy and the defendant lacks resources. It’s not just the judgment, it’s the U.K.’s loser-pays-the-attorneys-fees rule. In the U.S., with everyone bearing their own legal costs, plus with the First Amendment hurdles to libel actions, the specter of civil libel liability is much lower.

Don’t Get Too Excited About Your Company’s Social Media Debut Yet!

Friday, May 20th, 2011

Headshot of Michelle Sherman and social media logo

Michelle Sherman of law firm Sheppard Mullin blogs about social media law

Michelle Sherman, a lawyer with L.A.’s Sheppard Mullin, has a new blog post Sherman’s post asks the question:

Is Your Company’s Social Media Launch Ahead Of Its Compliance Program?

What a buzz kill, huh? This is why people don’t love lawyers. You’re all excited about your company’s social media debut, and then all of a sudden you remember, OH YEAH, I HAVE TO THINK ABOUT THE LAW!. And then you have to pay by the hour, and all of a sudden you are really grumpy.

But, of course, Michelle is right. Any business going into social media as a way to win customers and make money ought to learn something about the law before they do. There are a lot expensive mistakes you can make.

And why, you may ask, why has the law thrown up a bunch of hurdles that make for those potentially expensive mistakes? It’s because there are a lot of people who want to use social media to rip off customers. So, basically, the unscrupulous folks out there ruin it for everybody. Next time you’re grumpy about legal bills, pause for a moment to send some bad juju the way of the sleazes out there who are the reason so many laws exist.

Anyway, Michelle’s post contains a nice rundown of the FTC v. Twitter lawsuit (settlement recently finalized) and the FTC v. Google Buzz settlement.

School Assembly Shocker: Student’s Social Media Skimmed for Slideshow

Thursday, April 14th, 2011

Lynde Point Lighthouse near Old Saybrook, Conn. (Photo: Robert J. Beyus, NPS)

A high school in Connecticut illustrated a slideshow on internet privacy with photos of the school’s students, taken from Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook.

Kashmir Hill called the ploy a “clever lesson,” and she gave “[k]udos to the Connecticut high school employee who came up with this dramatic lesson on Internet safety.”

Some students at Old Saybrook High School, however, reacted angrily, saying it invaded their privacy.

Do the students have a point? Legally speaking, yeah, maybe.

I think this would probably not make for an ultimately successful lawsuit for copyright or right-of-publicity infringement. But there’s probably enough on both of those causes of action to file a complaint that isn’t frivolous. And hey, publicity rights have been getting crazy lately, so you never know.

So far no word on whether Righthaven is trying to sign up students for copyright lawsuits.

According to the New Haven Register, principal Oliver Barton said the pictures selected were publicly accessible and thought unlikely to embarrass anyone.

But that didn’t stop the backlash.

For me, I just can’t believe school administrators thought this was a good idea. What a great way to peeve off parents. While I question their sense of judgment, it does look like their lesson is working. Check out this passage from the New Haven Register article:

“They told us we were going to watch something about Internet safety, and they said they personalized the slide show, ” said a freshman named Kayla, who didn’t want to use her last name.

Did you catch that? Kayla didn’t want to use her last name!

Lesson learned.

Cricketer’s Twitter Libel Suit Sustained

Monday, March 14th, 2011

A court in the United Kingdom has rebuffed an attempt to throw out a Twitter libel suit brought by a New Zealander cricket player.

Cricketer Chris Cairns of New Zealand, a right-handed allrounder, alleged that cricket administrator Lalit Modi libeled him with a tweet about match fixing.

Modi’s attempt to have the case dismissed was based on the argument that so few people saw the allegedly libelous tweet, that it would be a waste of court resources. The court did not agree, saying in its decision,

A claimant’s primary concern in a libel action is vindication, not damages for what has been suffered in the past. So the damage that has occurred before the action is brought may not give an indication of the importance of the claim. Vindication includes a retraction, or a verdict for the claimant, or a judgment to the effect that the allegation complained of is false.

The Pinsent Masons law firm discusses the decision on their Out-Law blog.

Google’s “Realtime” Results Skimming Twitter

Monday, March 7th, 2011

On Saturday (March 5, 2011), I noticed for the first time a feature called “realtime results” coming up in response to a Google search query. The feature raises interesting legal questions because it appears to be re-publishing whole tweets from Twitter.

You can see what I saw in the window grab below.

window grab showing Google's realtime search results coming up in regular search query

Click on the image to see an expanded version. (Note that I removed my e-mail address from the upper-right, but the image is otherwise unretouched.)


This is different from what Google has done in the past with reproducing snippets of a page. They are now reproducing whole works, albeit small works that are 140 characters or fewer.

What Google is doing arguably goes beyond “search” and becomes just “skim”. Indeed, watching realtime results float by on Google might well constitute a final destination for many internet users. All the results I saw, by the way, were from Twitter.

Is this copyright infringement? Maybe. Arguably a phrase that is only 140 characters or less is not copyrightable. You could write a whole 50-page law-review article analyzing the copyrightability of tweets. The thing about a suit for copyright infringement is that it would need to be brought by the copyright owners, which are the tweeters, not Twitter. And that seems unlikely to happen.

Is this unfair competition? Maybe. That would be a cause of action that Twitter could possibly use. There’s another law-review article.

There’s also a doctrine known as “hot news misappropriation,” which is a quasi-intellectual-property/quasi-tort cause of action that is rarely used. This doctrine is often applied – more in theory than in litigation – to things like realtime stock quotes. Could Twitter sue for that? There’s another long law-review article you can write.

My short answer is, I don’t know. But Google’s realtime results do strike me as being a lot less “fair” than regular search results. This all continues to fit into Google’s pattern of act first and determine legality later. It’s the whole “better to ask for forgiveness than for permission” thing, of which examples are Google book search, Google street view, Google image search, viewable cached pages, and Google’s road testing of its self-driving car.

UK Courts Give Go Ahead to Blogging Live from Court, But Give Preferences to Traditional Media

Friday, February 25th, 2011

The Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales has issued a document [pdf] of “interim practice guidance” regarding the use of “live text-based forms of communication … from court.” Blogging and tweeting, for instance.

The document generally supports allowing persons to tweet and blog from court to provide rapid reports of court proceedings. Unfortunately, however, the guidance draws a distinction between the “wider public” and “representatives of the media” in a way that may be used to discriminate against citizen bloggers:

[I]t may be necessary for the judge to limit live, text-based communications to representatives of the media for journalistic purposes but to disallow its use by the wider public in court. That may arise if it is necessary, for example, to limit the number of mobile electronic devices in use at any given time because of the potential for electronic interference with the court’s own sound recording equipment, or because the widespread use of such devices in court may cause a distraction in the proceedings.

I find this passage troubling. Today, at least in the Twittersphere, anyone with a non-private Twitter account is on an equal footing with a salaried newspaper reporter with a Twitter account. In fact, there are a lot of citizen tweeters who have many more followers than many newspaper or television reporters with active Twitter accounts.

WSJ on Employers Stepping on Social Media Mines

Friday, January 21st, 2011

Wall Street Journal logoFor a long time there’s been a lot of talk about how employees and job candidates are hurting themselves by posting to blogs, Facebook and Twitter. But, as The Wall Street Journal notes in a story today by Jeanette Borzo (page B6 in print), employers are increasingly causing a mess for themselves by way of social media too.

The American Medical Response case has a hearing next week, the WSJ reports. There, the employer is accused of violating federal labor law for terminating an employee based on postings to Facebook.

The WSJ article also discusses the case of restaurant managers of Hillstone Restaurant Group in New Jersey who broke into a password-protected MySpace page that employees had set up. The employees were using the MySpace page to gab about work. The restaurant group was sued for violating the Stored Communications Act, a federal law, and was ordered to serve up $3,403 in back wages and $13,600 in punitives. The suit was eventually settled pending appeal.

Now, on a bit of a sidenote, I thought it was noteworthy that the Wall Street Journal article disclosed the following:

(Myspace is a unit of News Corp., which also owns The Wall Street Journal.)

Isn’t that a little surprising? I mean, I of course know that Rupert Murdoch bought MySpace for half a billion dollars a few years ago. I just didn’t know that MySpace still existed.

Ha ha. And while we’re on that invective tangent, here’s Ross Pruden on how Facebook vanquished MySpace. Interesting business-managementy stuff.

(By the way, I’ll confess I’m a little loathe to link to a Wall Street Journal article when I know that they may dump it behind their paywall any minute. I’ve avoided the WSJ in the past because of that. But I’m letting it go this time.)

Anna Explains How Not to Tweet Your Way to Court

Thursday, January 20th, 2011

SF Weekly and Dear Anna logosCourtney Love’s legal troubles over her Twitter activity inspired a reader to ask Anna Pulley, blogger for SF Weekly, how to avoid getting sued over tweets. Pulley’s answer is here:

Anna’s best advice is this:

“The most important thing you can do to avoid being sued is this: Don’t be an a–hole.”

(The deletion is mine, btw. I don’t mean to be a prude, but I’m blogging from North Dakota. Not everything that flies in  the Bay Area flies here. For example, the annual pantsless BART ride [NSFW*], for a lot of reasons, is unlikely to catch on up here.)

But Pulley is right. You can get all the legal advice in the world. None of it is adds up to the simple wisdom that if you don’t want to get sued, then don’t make someone mad enough to sue you.


* Contains pictures of pantsless people in an urban environment. Safe for work in San Francisco, but may not be safe for work in other areas of the country.

Tweet Law Tweets

Thursday, December 30th, 2010

gavel coming down on twitter bird logo


If you like Blog Law Blog, try @tweetlawtweets, my new twitter feed, wherein I tweet about the legal aspects of tweets and Twitter.

Social Media Restrictions on Athletes at Public Universities

Tuesday, November 16th, 2010

Eric P. Robinson at Citizen Media Law Project writes about Twitter bans on football players at public universities and the First Amendment.

Jury Instructions on Blogs

Tuesday, October 26th, 2010

For a while now, trial judges have been careful to warn juries against using social media to communicate about their trial. Here is an example of how that is being done. Below are recent jury instructions from the case of Digital Ally, Inc. v. Todd Elder & Co. from a state court in Jackson County, Missouri.

(8) PROHIBITION OF JUROR RESEARCH OR COMMUNICATION ABOUT THIS CASE

Your deliberations and verdict must be based only on the evidence and information presented to you in the proceedings in this courtroom. Rules of evidence and procedure have developed over many years to make sure that all parties in all cases are treated fairly and in the same way and to make sure that all jurors make a decision in this case based only on evidence allowed under those rules and which you hear or see in this courtroom. It would be unfair to the parties to have any juror influenced by information that has not been allowed into evidence in accordance with those rules of evidence and procedure or to have a juror influenced through the opinion of someone who has not been sworn as a juror in this case and heard evidence properly presented here.

Therefore, you must not conduct your own research or investigation into any issues in this case. You must not visit the scene of any of the incidents described in this case. You must not conduct any independent research or obtain any information of any type by reference to any person, textbooks, dictionaries, magazines, the use of the Internet, or any other means about any issues in this case or any witnesses, parties, layers, medical or scientific terminology, or evidence that is in any way involved in this trial. You are not permitted to communicate, use a cell phone, record, photograph, video, email, blog, tweet, text, or post anything about his trial or your thoughts or opinions about any issue in this case to any other person or to the Internet, “facebook”, “myspace”, “twitter”, or any other personal or public web site during the course of this trial or at any time before the formal acceptance of your verdict by me at the end of the case.

If any of you break these rules, it may result in a miscarriage of justice, and a new trial may be required.

The complete document is available on Westlaw at 2010 WL 3417831.