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.

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How will Theresa May meet her commitment to low-earners?

The Prime Minister will soon need to translate generalities into specifics. 

The curtailed Conservative leadership contest (which would not have finished yet) meant that Theresa May had little chance to define her agenda. But of the statements she has made since becoming prime minister, the most notable remains her commitment to lead a government "driven not by the interests of the privileged few, but by yours." 

When parliament returns on 5 September, and the autumn political season begins, May will need to translate this generality into specifics. The defining opportunity to do so will be the Autumn Statement. Originally intended by George Osborne to be a banal update of economic forecasts, this set-piece more often resembled a second Budget. Following the momentous Brexit vote, it certainly will under Philip Hammond. 

The first priority will be to demonstrate how the government will counter the threat of recession. Osborne's target of a budget surplus by 2020 has wisely been abandoned, granting the new Chancellor the freedom to invest more in infrastructure (though insiders make it clear not to expect a Keynesian splurge).

As well as stimulating growth, Hammond will need to reflect May's commitment to those "just managing" rather than the "privileged few". In her speech upon becoming prime minister, she vowed that "when it comes to taxes, we’ll prioritise not the wealthy, but you". A natural means of doing so would be to reduce VAT, which was increased to a record high of 20 per cent in 2010 and hits low-earners hardest. Others will look for the freeze on benefit increases to be lifted (with inflation forecast to rise to 3 per cent next year). May's team are keenly aware of the regressive effect of loose monetary policy (low interest rates and quantitative easing), which benefits wealthy asset-owners, and vow that those who lose out will be "compensated" elsewhere. 

A notable intervention has come from Andrew Tyrie, the Conservative chair of the Treasury select committee. He has called for the government to revive the publication of distributional analyses following Budgets and Autumn Statements, which was ended by George Osborne last year (having been introduced by the coalition in 2010). 

In a letter to Hammond, Tyrie wrote: "I would be grateful for an assurance that you will reinstate the distributional analysis of the effects of the budget and autumn statement measures on household incomes, recently and mistakenly discontinued by your predecessor." He added: "The new prime minister is committing her government to making Britain a country that works 'not for a privileged few, but for every one of us'. A high level of transparency about the effects of tax and welfare policy on households across the income distribution would seem to be a logical, perhaps essential starting point." 

Whether the government meets this demand will be an early test of how explicit it intends to be in reducing disparities. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.