The end of Twitter’s age of innocence

An English council’s successful attempt to subpoena Twitter users’ account information in US courts

Well, it turns out the law applies to Twitter, too. A Californian court has ordered Twitter to hand over the details of five Twitter accounts as part of an English council's investigation into a local whistleblowing blogger called "Mr Monkey".

That South Tyneside Council went directly to the Californian court was the Times's top line. Seeing as Twitter is a US company, this is hardly surprising, particularly when the website's terms of service are taken into account. Under the heading "Controlling Law and Jurisdiction", it says:

All claims, legal proceedings or litigation arising in connection with the Services will be brought solely in San Francisco County, California, and you consent to the jurisdiction of and venue in such courts and waive any objection as to inconvenient forum. [Emphasis added]

In other words, if a person or organisation wants to subpoena information about a Twitter user, they have to do so in California – and the user has to fight against it in California. While footballers and councils can afford to launch such proceedings – South Tyneside has so far spent "less than £75,000" in its attempts to unmask Mr Monkey – many Twitter users will not be able to afford to defend them.

Although the story broke yesterday in the Sunday Telegraph, it has been rumbling on for months. Mr Monkey published the following email exchange, between South Tyneside and the solicitor investigating Mr Monkey on the council's behalf (click to enlarge for both).

Email exchange

Continued:

Email exchange

South Tyneside's success could prove extremely significant. Ryan Giggs's lawyers were unsuccessful in their recent attempt to force Twitter to hand over details of accounts that speculated whether the Manchester United footballer had taken out an injunction.

Lawyers for Giggs went through the high court in the UK; if they were to try through California's lawcourts, however, they would stand a much better chance, as it is these courts that actually have jurisdiction over Twitter.

Throughout the 2000s, London gained the nickname of a "town called Sue" in legal circles, after it became an extremely popular destination for libel tourism. The advent of Twitter, however, has twisted this upside down. The case of Mr Monkey could trigger a flood of libel traffic in the opposite direction, across the Atlantic.

In any case, Twitter's age of innocence is over. Anonymity is not guaranteed and users are neither immune to libel nor impervious to injunctions. Unless you can afford a good lawyer and a few return trips to San Francisco, be wary. Mind your tweets.

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories