By Kris Holt May 30, 2011 6:16 pm EST
Twitter has been told to hand over the details of a user in the U.K. in a landmark case that could have big implications on free speech, privacy and anonymity on the social network and the wider Internet.
Twitter has passed on the name, email address and phone number of a South Tyneside councillor who is being accused of posting libelous tweets about South Tyneside council to several Twitter accounts. The council took the matter to the Superior Court of California, which told San Francisco-based Twitter to hand over 30 pieces of information relating to Twitter accounts including @fatcouncillor and @ahmedkhan01.
Ahmed Khan, who is the councillor at the center of the dispute, received an email from Twitter earlier this month to tell him that his personal information had been handed over.
Khan, who denies being the author of the allegedly libelous tweets, told The Guardian that:
It is like something out of 1984. 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?
I don’t fully understand it but it all relates to my Twitter account and it not only breaches my human rights, but it potentially breaches the human rights of anyone who has ever sent me a message on Twitter. A number of whistleblowers have sent me private messages, exposing any wrongdoing in the council, and the authority knows this.
I was never even told they were taking this case to court in California. The first I heard was when Twitter contacted me. I had just 14 days to defend the case and I was expected to fly 6,000 miles and hire my own lawyer — all at my expense.
Even if they unmask this blogger, what does the council hope to achieve? The person or persons concerned is simply likely to declare bankruptcy and the council won’t recover any money it has spent.
A spokesman for South Tyneside council said that the legal action was carried out by the previous leader of the authority, but that it had been continued with the full backing of the current head. “The council has a duty of care to protect its employees and as this blog contains damaging claims about council officers, legal action is being taken to identify those responsible,” the spokesperson added.
This is believed to be the first time that Twitter has identified an anonymous user due to pressure from the legal system, and it comes at a time where the social network is being sued after users were accused of breaking a gagging order.
A Premier League soccer star, who has been named as Manchester United player Ryan Giggs, has issued a lawsuit against the social network “and persons unknown” after a super injunction was broken. The gagging order, which was put in place to prevent an alleged affair with a model being reported, was allegedly broken by thousands of Twitter users who mentioned the player’s name in tweets.
The difference between this case and Khan’s, however, is that Giggs issued the lawsuit at the high court in London, which has no jurisdiction over Twitter.
The Khan case could have a huge impact on the future of Twitter. If it is forced to hand over a user’s identity every time a tweet is posted that is deemed to be libelous, then users’ rights to free speech and privacy on Twitter (and all social networks, come to think of it) may be at risk.