Twitter, Gag Orders and The British Press

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Also Known As : Don’t Believe Link-Bait Headlines (Read The Small Print) : Update 5 (Update 6, Rewrite: British Councilman Waives Protest Rights, Says Twitter Released Personal Data)

The London Telegraph has a screaming headline:

Twitter reveals secrets: Details of British users handed over in landmark case that could help Ryan Giggs

The problem is this: nothing in the story supports the assertion. No where — NO WHERE — do the “reporters” (Richard Gray and Nigel Green) provide a source for the claim. [I'm not saying that the story is false; I'm saying we can't tell if it is true. It's an unproven allegation.]

The article indiscriminately mixes two different British law suits — “councillors and officials at a local authority, South Tyneside” and Ryan Giggs, the infamous football player.

Lawyers for Giggs went to the High Court in London to obtain a search order against Twitter on May 20, calling on the company to release account details of those involved in breaking the injunction. The order has no legal status in the US and the deadline passed on Friday, apparently without Twitter complying (emphasis added).

Here are the details of the separate council suit — again, no attribution (names or links) provided:

Since 2008 Mr Monkey has levelled allegations against councillors ranging from ballot-rigging, drug-taking and fiddling expenses to a claim that one successfully ordered a public bus to turn around and pick him up from a pub late at night.

Since 2009 criticisms of the council have been made on Twitter, which the targets believe are linked to the earlier blogs.

The legal action to unmask the culprit was brought by three councillors and one senior official: Ian Malcolm, the council’s Labour leader, David Potts, former Conservative group leader who is now an independent, Anne Walsh, a Labour councillor, and Rick O’Farrell, head of enterprise and regeneration.

They hired a US law firm, McDermott Will & Emery, and filed a complaint in the Superior Court of California in the San Mateo County against “persons unknown”.

In court documents, they alleged: “The defendant unlawfully posted false and defamatory statements about the plaintiffs on several weblogs, more commonly called blogs.” As part of the action they were able to obtain a subpoena ordering Twitter to release the name, address, email address, telephone number and geographical location of the users behind five accounts: @fatcouncillor, @cllrdavidpotts, @councillorahmedkhan, @councillorkhan and @ahmedkhan01.

You can learn more about the council case (better sourcing) from The Shields Gazette.

The Giggs case has been in the press this week because of something unique to the British legal system: the colloquially-known super injunction. In Britain, celebrities and powerful pubic officials have used gag orders to prevent news organizations from publishing embarrassing private information. A super injunction is a gag order where the details of the gag order are also verboten.

Twitter has said that if faced with a legal court order that it would notify users, so that they might protect themselves. For more on this subject, The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Jillian York and Cindy Cohn examine the Ryan Giggs affair.

***

Update 5:

Councilman Khan has told me (via Twitter) that Twitter released his personal information, after a receiving a legally-binding subpoena, on May 5. According to the third-to-the-last paragraph of the Telegraph article, Khan declined the opportunity to oppose the disclosure:

He was given the opportunity by Twitter of hiring a lawyer to oppose the disclosure order, but decided not to.

Here’s our tweetstream:

Twitter - Gill-Khan Conversation

Councilman Khan Says Twitter Released His Personal Data

Three of the five accounts cited in the Telegraph article are related to Khan; the other two accounts yield “page not found” errors.

Why might he have foregone the opportunity to object to the release? Too expensive? To make a point?

Update 4:

I’ve written Ahmed Khan – @councillorkhan [Council account] and @ahmedkhan01 [personal] – to clarify what happened and if he, indeed, declined the opportunity to hire a lawyer to fight the subpoena.

Here is a more accurate — but far less inflammatory (see above reference to “link bait”) — rewritten lede for The Telegraph article (assuming Khan declined):

Ahmed Khan, an Independent Councillor in South Tyneside, has decided not to fight disclosure of personal details of his Twitter accounts, a move that he says means Tyneside Council members will have access to private messages, both personal and those related to his constituents.

Twitter received a subpoena in April demanding that it release the name, address, email address, telephone number and geographical location of the users behind five accounts: @fatcouncillor ["Councillor Ahmed Khan's conscience"], @cllrdavidpotts [no such account], @councillorahmedkhan [no such account], @councillorkhan [Khan's Council account] and @ahmedkhan01 [Khan's personal account]. The company followed its policy of notifying users prior to responding to a legal court order.

Update 3:

According to the South Tyneside Independents:

The council have now issued a subpoena against Twitter demanding information about Councillor Ahmed Khan’s twitter site on the 14th April 2011. The council wants access to Cllr Khan’s personal twitter records which could compromise the privacy of council whistleblowers and reveal the identity of residents (many of whom are vulnerable) who have asked Cllr Khan to deal with their problems and concerns, including cases of domestic violence, elder abuse, neighbour disputes and complaints about the council.

Note: there is more journalistic ethics in the political website blog post than in the Telegraph. It’s where I found the case number for the related case.

The ChronicleLive reported on April 28 that the Khan’s private and council Twitter accounts were the subject of a subpoena.

It means the plaintiffs will be able to access private messages sent to his accounts, which Coun Khan claims raises “serious privacy issues”.

He said: “This not only breaches my human rights, but the human rights of anyone who has ever sent me a message on Twitter.

“A number of whistleblowers have sent me private messages on the site, exposing any wrongdoing in the council, and the authority knows this.

“I cannot help wondering whether this legal action is an attempt to expose council whistleblowers, rather than unmask an anonymous blogger.”

Here are the accounts: @fatcouncillor [Councillor Ahmed Khan's conscience], @cllrdavidpotts [no such account], @councillorahmedkhan [no such account], @councillorkhan [Council account] and @ahmedkhan01 [personal]

Update 2:

Iain Malcom, David Potts, Anne Walsh and Rick O’Farrell filed a complaint (call for jury trial) on April 6, 2009 (Case CIV482779 – IAIN MALCOLM VS. DOEScourt PDF, local PDF) citing libel, invasion of privacy and emotional distress; the remarks were allegedly published by a “blog-hosting company in the State of California.” According to the court timeline, there is a Case Management Conference scheduled for July 21, 2011. Nothing in this document mentions Twitter by name. (It is not a blog hosting company.)

Where is South Tyneside?

Where Is South Tyneside? Click Image For Google Map

Update 1:

Nothing on the law firm website about a recent “win”:

McDermott Media

Nothing on the news portion of the Superior Court of California, San Mateo County, website — the Telegraph fails to provide a court case number, which makes it very hard to look up the case.
Superior Court of California in San Mateo County

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18 thoughts on “Twitter, Gag Orders and The British Press

  1. Hi, Foobar — thanks for the catch. Two reasons for the typo – I know a Kahn (so I have to consciously type Khan) and it was late here (ie after midnight) when I did that last update. FTR, there were three misspellings out of 18 – two of them were in the last update.

  2. Foobar

    It’s Khan, not Kahn. How can you make such a basic spelling error over and over again, including right next to where you’ve mentioned his Twitter handles?

    “I’ve written Ahmed Kahn – @councillorkhan [Council account] and @ahmedkhan01 [personal] …”

    Who knows what other careless errors lurk in the article.

  3. Firstly, thanks very much for the link back. Really great analysis here.

    I think the thing that shocks me most as a British citizen, as well as a journalist who has been covering ‘the British perspective’ to a vastly American audience on the super-injunctions debate, is how ironic it should be that I rave on about the Patriot Act ‘limiting freedoms’, where we don’t even have a First Amendment.

    I thought, if the Patriot Act can infringe so many rights and liberties, but still have the First Amendment, it would kind of ‘balance out’. But as a British citizen, I am appalled at how far our freedoms of speech are being stretched, and even being dismantled as a result of these gagging orders.

    Thanks again for the great piece.

  4. South Tyneside Resident

    As a resident in South Shields I would like to know who is paying for their legal repersentation. Themselves or
    us as residents.

  5. Hi, Dan — I’m not sure what you mean by “rebuttal.” The Telegraph mixed two very different stories and made them sound as though they were linked somehow. They aren’t.

    Twitter’s policy is to notify account holders if the company has been presented with a legally-binding order. If the account holder protests (ie, challenges the court order) then Twitter waits for the court process to play out. In this case, the Councillor did not object. See http://wiredpen.com/2011/05/29/british-councilman-waives-protest-rights/

  6. Dan

    This doesn’t exactly read like a rebuttal. What has Twitter done in relation to these legal demands and what is its policy?

  7. OMG. Gizmodo completely fubars its rewrite of the Telegraph story:

    The case had to do with five Twitter users, @councillorkhan and @ahmedkhan01, and was made by councillors in the town of South Tyneside. They were brought in by Ryan Giggs, one very famous player for Manchester United, to investigate claims by a Mr. Monkey that he was the holder of an injunction to protect his own personal information.

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