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.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Why Theresa May won't exclude students from the net migration target

The Prime Minister believes the public would view the move as "a fix". 

In a letter to David Cameron shortly after the last general election, Philip Hammond demanded that students be excluded from the net migration target. The then foreign secretary, who was backed by George Osborne and Sajid Javid, wrote: "From a foreign policy point of view, Britain's role as a world class destination for international students is a highly significant element of our soft power offer. It's an issue that's consistently raised with me by our foreign counterparts." Universities and businesses have long argued that it is economically harmful to limit student numbers. But David Cameron, supported by Theresa May, refused to relent. 

Appearing before the Treasury select committee yesterday, Hammond reignited the issue. "As we approach the challenge of getting net migration figures down, it is in my view essential that we look at how we do this in a way that protects the vital interests of our economy," he said. He added that "It's not whether politicians think one thing or another, it's what the public believe and I think it would be useful to explore that quesrtion." A YouGov poll published earlier this year found that 57 per cent of the public support excluding students from the "tens of thousands" target.

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, has also pressured May to do so. But the Prime Minister not only rejected the proposal - she demanded a stricter regime. Rudd later announced in her conference speech that there would be "tougher rules for students on lower quality courses". 

The economic case for reform is that students aid growth. The political case is that it would make the net migration target (which has been missed for six years) easier to meet (long-term immigration for study was 164,000 in the most recent period). But in May's view, excluding students from the target would be regarded by the public as a "fix" and would harm the drive to reduce numbers. If an exemption is made for one group, others will inevitably demand similar treatment. 

Universities complain that their lobbying power has been reduced by the decision to transfer ministerial responsibility from the business department to education. Bill Rammell, the former higher education minister and the vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire, said in July: “We shouldn’t assume that Theresa May as prime minister will have the same restrictive view on overseas students that Theresa May the home secretary had”. Some Tory MPs hoped that the net migration target would be abolished altogether in a "Nixon goes to China" moment.

But rather than retreating, May has doubled-down. The Prime Minister regards permanently reduced migration as essential to her vision of a more ordered society. She believes the economic benefits of high immigration are both too negligible and too narrow. 

Her ambition is a forbidding one. Net migration has not been in the "tens of thousands" since 1997: when the EU had just 15 member states and the term "BRICS" had not even been coined. But as prime minister, May is determined to achieve what she could not as home secretary. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.