Online privacy lost another battle this week in the California courts. If you were tracking the news on Sunday and Monday, you may have seen the story of the lawsuit launched by the South Tyneside Council in the United Kingdom to reveal the identity of Mr. Monkey, a notorious blogger who made a number of scurrilous and libelous statements about the Council. Hiding behind the anonymity of his Mr. Monkey Twitter handle, it seems the angry blogger may actually be one of the members of the Council, but the jury is still out, at least in the United Kingdom.
Not so in California, however. In their quest to uncover the identity of Mr. Monkey, the Council went to the trouble and expense of taking their suit all the way to San Francisco, where Twitter has its offices. As reported by the New Statesman, Twitter’s terms of service specify that any legal claims need to be pursued in the local jurisdiction:
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.
I guess Mr. Monkey didn’t expect the South Tyneside Council to spend the money on a plane ticket to San Francisco to make their case directly to the local court. Having made their case, Twitter complied with the court ruling and released the names, location, email addresses, and other data of the people accused in the affair. As noted by Gizmodo:
Twitter has, up to now, been resistant to releasing the account details of its users, but has also stated that it would comply with legal requests. Twitter complied with their [South Tyneside Council’s] complaint and chose to release the names, location data, and and email addresses of the people accused. Their decision begs not a few questions, particularly: Can we expect that much more litigious lawsuits based on Twitter libel? and; How much should we be watching our tweets from now on?
This sets a new precedent. This is the first time that a foreign plaintiff has come to the United States seeking evidence for local libel laws, and getting it. Privacy laws differ from country to country, and this case opens the door for anyone with the will and the readies to travel to the U.S. to get what most may think is private information for use in a lawsuit.
And this also serves as a practical reminder that online privacy is an oxymoron. Remember that Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, and other social media destinations are not protected by freedom of speech, but companies looking to gain a profit. If they are faced with a legal action, they will do what’s best for the company and its investors, which may not be the best outcome for online privacy. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Since its inception, the Internet has been self-policing, and as the Web becomes more sophisticated, good online citizens should be allowed to express an honest opinion without repercussions, and mischief makers like Mr. Monkey need to be “outed” to make the web a safer place for the rest of us.