Too Many Twits Tweeting?

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As a student of cyber-law, I try to keep an eye out for interesting news pertaining to the internet. This morning’s BBC news programme featured an interview with former footballer, Stan Collymore, who talked about the racial abuse he has had to endure whilst using the micro-blogging site Twitter. Collymore’s candid remarks prompted me to post this review of some high-profile Twitter complaints.

Collymore used to play for Liverpool FC, but he now works as a pundit for radio station TalkSport. Like many TV and radio personalities today, he uses Twitter to attract followers and maintain an online presence.

The beauty (and curse) of Twitter is that members of the public can ‘tweet’ their thoughts and views directly to the computer screen of any person they are following, and such comments are displayed instantly for all to see. For celebrity users, this may enable interaction with fans during live performances. Regrettably, though, aside from building a better bond with his listeners, Collymore has been putting-up with racial taunts and death threats. He told the BBC:

“I’ve spoken numerous times to Staffordshire Police and other police forces who are banging their heads against a brick wall because they want to do stuff, but Twitter aren’t furnishing them with the information. I have no problem with people discussing factual things about me [but] if it’s illegal, I reserve the right as a United Kingdom citizen to live within the laws of the United Kingdom, and so should Twitter.”

Collymore remarked that Twitter may be reluctant to suspend peoples’ accounts because “they’ve had a recent New York stock exchange float, which essentially monetises [the site] so that the more users [they] have, the more the company is worth.” And he believes that better “age verification tools” will reduce the large number of underage users who are being “goaded by adults to make racist and homophobic and sexist insults on Twitter.”

Collymore’s complaint reveals a number of difficult issues.

Cyberspace is a global network which connects all people in all countries at all times. And yet, there is a huge tendency for citizens and politicians to regard cyberspace as something that can be regulated nationally. It is true that cyberspace is accessed via the phone lines, and these are subject to the laws of whichever country they happen to be in. But short of spying on peoples’ e-mail, and blocking access to certain websites altogether, there is only so much that governments can achieve by exercising control over the phones.

It is clear from Collymore’s interview that he makes no distinction between abuse happening in cyberspace and abuse happening in real-space. Doubtless, the effects can be the same, or perhaps even worse, where threats and taunts are made online. However, Twitter is a US-based company; it has no offices in Britain. Therefore, it is not as simple as bringing Twitter “within the laws of the United Kingdom” as he suggests. If all websites could be regulated in that way, the liberal World-Wide-Web might become a string of tightly-governed (possibly illiberal) State-Wide-Webs. That having been said, sites such as Twitter should be more willing to co-operate with local law enforcement in order to bring offenders to justice. After all, abuse in cyberspace can have devastating real-space consequences, so sites which enable such abuse ought to bear some responsibility.

As for Collymore’s point about Twitter taking greater steps to verify the age of users, I am uncertain how this would help in the long-run. If, as he says, many underage users are “goaded by adults” to post insults, what, then, will stop such adults from using Twitter themselves, or simply opening new accounts on behalf of their children?

The Collymore case is distressing in that vile comments are being posted on his personal Twitter page against his will. However, in the so-called ‘Twitter Joke Trial’ of 2010, an ordinary user posted on his own page (not someone else’s) to vent his frustration at the closure of Robin Hood Airport in South Yorkshire due to freezing weather conditions. His ‘tweet’ read as follows:

“Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!!”

This was spotted by an off-duty manager (one week later) who notified police. An investigation then led to the arrest and conviction of Paul Chambers for sending an electronic message of a menacing character.

Chambers was ordered to pay a fine, plus court costs. However, his conviction was later quashed on appeal with the help of various celebrities who came to his aid — including comedian Stephen Fry, who pledged that he would be willing to go to prison himself by ‘re-tweeting’ the same message, over and over, if Chambers’ conviction was not overturned.

The question we must ask ourselves, reader… Was this ‘tweet’ an example of harmless British banter, as Stephen Fry suggested, or was it an example of “very foolish” behaviour (at a minimum), as Robert Smith QC stated on behalf of the Crown?

For my part, I think this case is distinguishable from Stan Collymore’s in that no perceptible hurt was caused to another individual. The fact that Chambers posted on his own page surely engages the human right to Freedom of Expression. Now, it must be recognised that all speech is not free speech. The abuse directed at Stan Collymore cannot be regarded as free. Nor could shouting “Fire!” as a prank in a crowded theatre. Obviously, therefore, speech is free until it begins to encroach upon the safety and freedom of others. But can Paul Chambers’ ‘tweet’ about blowing an airport sky-high be likened to shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theatre?

My answer is no… evidently not. If Chambers had intended his remark to cause a panic, he surely would have elaborated on the details of the threat. Moreover, he would have taken greater steps to draw attention to his words. Twitter is a public site, granted, but with 500 million users (each having their own page to post on), it is unlikely that one ‘tweet’ would ever be noticed by a random person it mentions. Indeed, it is quite remarkable that Robin Hood Airport discovered this ‘tweet’ at all.

The ‘Twitter Joke Trial’ arguably involved a user being prosecuted for exercising the right to free speech. However, unlike Paul Chambers, who was relatively unknown, does a person living in the public eye have a greater responsibility to watch what they write — even when ‘tweeting’ on their personal page?

In the 2013 case of McAlpine v Bercow, a senior Conservative politician sued the wife of the House of Commons Speaker for libel — alleging her ‘tweet’ insinuated that he was a paedophile. Mrs Bercow had posted on Twitter:

“ Why is Lord McAlpine trending? *innocent face* ”

This ‘tweet’ may not appear to be libellous on first glance, but it was made following an episode of Newsnight in which it was alleged (incorrectly) that a Thatcher-era politician was linked to child sex abuse. Therefore, reading this message in context, it might be seen to suggest that Lord McAlpine was the politician in question.

The case settled out of court, but it highlights an interesting dilemma from a legal perspective. Before sites such as Twitter existed, a person could only commit libel by ‘publishing’ an untrue statement which harmed the reputation of another. Hence, it was typically tabloid columnists and other such writers who found themselves being sued. Conversely, if a person harmed the reputation of another by saying something untrue (i.e. by word of mouth), this was regarded as slander, a somewhat lesser offence. Libel was treated more seriously because of the permanent, and thus more damaging, nature of the printed word.

Fast-forwarding to the 21st century… it seems that sites such as Twitter have transformed every one of us into a budding tabloid columnist. Unpleasant things that people might once have said to each other in private are now being ‘published’ via the Twitter site — enabling an untrue statement to quickly reach other members of the public. But what should be the law’s response? Should defamatory ‘tweets’ be treated more like slander than libel?

On the one hand, it seems right that an untrue ‘tweet’ should be punished the same as an untrue news item. Arguably, the damage to a person’s reputation is the same whether an untruth is published via the Daily Mail or Twitter. On the other hand, there is a clear difference between a paid newspaper journalist, whose job carries responsibilities, and the average user of Twitter, who casually ‘tweets’ as though he were chatting with friends. Is it fair to punish both characters equally for defamatory comments? Isn’t a paid journalist supposed to know better, thus making him more blameworthy?

It is perhaps fortunate that libel law remains the preserve of the rich, for if a day should come when neighbour starts suing neighbour, Parliament may need to act to take the twits out of Twitter.

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