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Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Unmasking an estimated 30,000 Twitter users, a step-by-step guide

Twitter's European boss Tony Wang said people who did "bad things" would have to defend themselves, before warning that Twitter would hand over user information where "legally required" in response to a question from the BBC about #injunctiongate

UPDATE: reports Tony Wang is now saying he was misquoted (ht @charonqc)

I'm not sure where tweeting the name of a professional footballer in the context of gossip fits on a scale of 0-10 of "bad things" but let's assume Lawyers acting for **** ***** want to go after all 30,000.  Or worse, the court itself wants to press for contempt charges...

Note: I'm estimating the number of users at the low end of various reports, ranging from 30,000 to 75,000.  The exact figure is mostly irrelevant.

Twitter's global user base

Of all those who tweeted the name ***** ***** it will include a mix of:
  • Citizens of England and Wales tweeting from England or Wales
  • Scottish, Irish or any other nationality not normally resident in England or Wales but tweeting from England and Wales
  • Those outside England and Wales
Okay, I'm being a bit facetious because any defamation case need not establish the Tweeter has links to England and Wales, as the court claims global jurisdiction; however, as far as the Attorney General Dominic Grieve stated in Parliament last week, injunctions as with other court orders issued by the High Court in London normally only apply to England and Wales.

Still, if you're a US citizen hit with a libel claim from a UK court, and you have no business interests in the UK, you have 2 options. Laugh, or laugh louder. In fact some US states such as California have enacted laws to address the free speech implications of Britain's libel system.

What does Twitter know about its users?

Twitter for most users has only your email address and records indicating the IP address(es) used to access its service, in addition to any other information you choose to publicly share.

The first course of action for the court may be an attempt to serve papers via email. Or even directly over Twitter, as the High Court tried in 2009.

Let's assume that doesn't work.  Lawyers will then be faced with the task of unmasking users via their ISP via their IP address, or email service provider via their email address.

This itself it fraught with challenges.  If they go after users via the IP address, it's well known that many users may share the same IP address. Lawyers I've spoken to over the years indicate there's no liability on account holders for civil offences conducted on their connection without their knowledge or consent. I've no idea what the position would be in the case of a criminal contempt of court enquiry.

If the lawyers attempt to trace users via their email address, all that may yield is a list of IP addresses used to access the account.  See above.

I've not idea how this will pan out. Expect a targeted attempt to unmask a handful of users, who no doubt will be painted as some kind of primary publishers responsible for subsequent mentions, or high farce.


Postscript: in the same BBC news articleWikipedia founder Jimmy Wales is quoted on the British injunction system as saying:

"I do view it to being similar to the Chinese situation where they also cover up misdeeds of high ranking people."

He went on to say although the internet was a global phenomenon, it was unlikely to pander to those countries with stricter rules on free speech due to the "absolutely inflexible" US position.

I assume the "absolutely inflexible" was not meant with irony at the current Wikileaks saga, or the repeated attempt to subpoena New York Times journalist James Risen to unmask whoever leaked information in the criminal trial of a CIA official accused of unmasking western attempts to disrupt Iran's nuclear weapons programme.

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