This article was published on May 29, 2011

The Truth About That ‘Landmark’ Twitter Case

The Truth About That ‘Landmark’ Twitter Case

This weekend The Telegraph reported that Twitter had revealed the name, email address and telephone number of Ahmed Khan, a UK council whistleblower accused of libelling his local authority using a number of anonymous twitter accounts and blog Mr Monkey.

The council in question, Tyneside, took the case to the legal superior court of California, which in turn issued a subpoena to Twitter on April 14th 2011. According to Khan, what Twitter handed over was “just a great long list of numbers” and ordered it to hand over 30 pieces of information relating to several Twitter accounts, including @fatcouncillor and @ahmedkhan01. According to Khan, this included “all private messages sent by other whistleblowers exposing wrongdoing in the council.”

On April 15th Khan was notified by Twitter of the subpoena and was asked if he wanted to dispute it in court. He declined. On May 5th, Twitter released the details.

An enormously significant part of this story, missed by The Telegraph’s original article, is that the user chose not to fight the order in court.

This is key.

Khan elected not to contest the subpoena. When asked why, he said he “had no knowledge of US law and was wary of the costs involved. I would have had to fund any action myself.”

Not a Landmark Case

Twitter and many other companies, most interestingly Google, have a policy of notifying a user before responding to a subpoena giving the user a fair chance to contest the subpoena. In the case of Ahmad Khan, he chose not to fight the order and rather immediately hand over his details.

We spoke to Murray Buchanan, a former media lawyer turned commentator, and asked what options were available to Khan and Twitter:

“…He could have contested the subpoena by asking the court to prevent Twitter disclosing his identity. His legal argument would be that in Twitter’s Terms of Service it says it won’t pass on users’ details unless compelled by law.”

That means, there is a time wherein the person served with the subpoena, Khan in this case, can contest it.  He chose not to, so the subpoena request proceeded, Khan waived his right, and Twitter revealed the information.  If Khan had chosen not to waive his right, it would then be for the claimant [Tyneside Council], to convince the court to grant an order compelling Twitter to disclose the details. And for Khan to convince the Court otherwise.

In summary, this is NOT a landmark case marking the end of free speech online. It is only a landmark of any sort in that it’s the first time Twitter has actually released user info without a user contesting.

What this means for Twitter users

In essence, what this all boils down to is Twitter users knowing their legal rights and reading terms of service. Ignorance of the law is no defense, so Khan’s statement, “I had no knowledge of US law and was wary of the costs involved. I would have had to fund any action myself,” will garner little sympathy from the law.

If people decide to use Twitter as a way to break news anonymously or act as a whistleblower, they need to be prepared for the legal proceedings that may come into play if Twitter receives a subpoena to reveal your information.

It is important to realise Twitter has already proven it’s on its users side. Earlier this year Twitter received a subpoena ordering it to hand over information about a number of people connected to Wikileaks. The one significant difference in the case case is that the subpoena also prevented Twitter from telling anyone, especially the targets, about the request’s existence – going against Twitter’s TOS. Twitter fought the order and won. It then consequently told the users in question – again as per its TOS – who in turn contested the subpoena.

Needless to say, despite Twitter clearly doing all it can to help maintain the privacy of its users, maybe it’s time we all reviewed & reconsidered the TOS of some of our most used services, particularly where anonymity is concerned.

Many thanks to Jeff Cormier for his contributions to this piece.