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


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.

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For the first time in my life I have a sworn enemy – and I don’t even know her name

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

Last month, I made an enemy. I do not say this lightly, and I certainly don’t say it with pride, as a more aggressive male might. Throughout my life I have avoided confrontation with a scrupulousness that an unkind observer would call out-and-out cowardice. A waiter could bring the wrong order, cold and crawling with maggots, and in response to “How is everything?” I’d still manage a grin and a “lovely, thanks”.

On the Underground, I’m so wary of being a bad citizen that I often give up my seat to people who aren’t pregnant, aren’t significantly older than me, and in some cases are far better equipped to stand than I am. If there’s one thing I am not, it’s any sort of provocateur. And yet now this: a feud.

And I don’t even know my enemy’s name.

She was on a bike when I accidentally entered her life. I was pushing a buggy and I wandered – rashly, in her view – into her path. There’s little doubt that I was to blame: walking on the road while in charge of a minor is not something encouraged by the Highway Code. In my defence, it was a quiet, suburban street; the cyclist was the only vehicle of any kind; and I was half a street’s length away from physically colliding with her. It was the misjudgment of a sleep-deprived parent rather than an act of malice.

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

I was stung by what someone on The Apprentice might refer to as her negative feedback, and walked on with a redoubled sense of the parental inadequacy that is my default state even at the best of times.

A sad little incident, but a one-off, you would think. Only a week later, though, I was walking in a different part of town, this time without the toddler and engrossed in my phone. Again, I accept my culpability in crossing the road without paying due attention; again, I have to point out that it was only a “close shave” in the sense that meteorites are sometimes reported to have “narrowly missed crashing into the Earth” by 50,000 miles. It might have merited, at worst, a reproving ting of the bell. Instead came a familiar voice. “IT’S YOU AGAIN!” she yelled, wrathfully.

This time the shock brought a retort out of me, probably the harshest thing I have ever shouted at a stranger: “WHY ARE YOU SO UNPLEASANT?”

None of this is X-rated stuff, but it adds up to what I can only call a vendetta – something I never expected to pick up on the way to Waitrose. So I am writing this, as much as anything, in the spirit of rapprochement. I really believe that our third meeting, whenever it comes, can be a much happier affair. People can change. Who knows: maybe I’ll even be walking on the pavement

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood