The proof of the pudding…

christmas pudding with custardThe news that Lord McAlpine has started legal proceedings against Sally Bercow for libel over her tweets has been greeted in some quarters by dismay. I don’t see it that way: from an academic perspective, and potentially for future tweeters in related circumstances, it could end up being good news. One of the difficulties at the moment is that we really don’t know exactly where we stand. A high profile High Court battle could help us find out – and a high profile battle it seems likely to be, with Bercow having engaged those renowned lawyers Carter-Ruck. In the law in England and Wales, it’s hard to know where you are without a proper court case: the proof of the legal pudding is very much in the eating.

What’s more, in this case, all possible outcomes have their upside. I’m not going to speculate as to how the case will go – though you might want to look at my guide to defamation on twitter, which is here. I look forward to following the case closely, if it does actually come to trial – and it is important to understand what the main possible outcomes are, and what impact each of them might have. There are three main possibilities:

  1. Lord McAlpine could lose;
  2. Lord McAlpine could win, but be awarded relatively small damages; or
  3. Lord McAlpine could win, and be awarded substantial damages.

If the first happens, and Lord McAlpine ends up with a legal bloody nose, many tweeters will breathe a huge sigh of relief. The chilling effect will be effectively melted, and twitter will feel a freer, more comfortable place.

If the second happens, though the result won’t be as ‘freeing’ for tweeters, it might well mean that potential claimants are less likely to pursue people for defamatory tweets. If the damages to be gained are lower, and the costs are still substantial, why bother? Just ask for an apology, or move on. Cases that are pursued would only occur in very serious circumstances, or where the defamation is very clear and very damaging – in which case it may well be entirely appropriate! Twitter does need to have some kind of responsibility…

If the third happens, the result may be pretty hideous for Bercow herself – but it is important to understand that damages in libel cases in England and Wales are no longer as high as at their peak in the 80s. The £50,000 that Lord McAlpine is reported to have asked from Bercow would be a hefty figure by recent standards, for example. Even so, from the perspective of the future, there is an upside to this – it would make it crystal clear that defamation law, insofar as it relates to the social media, is in dire need of reform.

I have argued elsewhere for this – and for the development of a ‘defence of responsible tweeting’ to provide clarity and reassurance for tweeters. This is a key moment – for the first time in many years, a new defamation bill is making its way through parliament. If we are going to change the law, this is the moment. A case like the Bercow/McAlpine case could provide the ammunition that is needed to convince parliament that a change is needed, a change that would support the developing social media community.

That’s why I am not dismayed at Lord McAlpine’s move – I can see a good way forward whichever result comes from the case. In a way, the worst thing would be if it didn’t make it to court. That is also still entirely possible. Some kind of settlement might happen, or McAlpine might even drop the case. That would leave us with more uncertainty – and uncertainty is rarely good in a legal context. I’d like to see something out in the open, something proved.

Chilling out…

There’s been a lot of talk of the ‘chilling effect’ recently. The Leveson report, due out this week, is going to have a chilling effect, we’re told. Lord McAlpine’s threatened defamation suits on tweeters are having a chilling effect too – I was even quoted as saying so myself. So what is this chilling effect anyway? Even mention the words and it sends shivers down the spines of free speech advocates. You’re faced by icy glares – and can find yourself frozen out of discussions. Suggest that there might be some speech that would be better off ‘chilled’ and it doesn’t exactly make people warm to you.

None of us want twitter to turn tepid – if all we get is lukewarm discussions of celebrities and cold-hearted press releases from politicians then what’s the point? And yet sometimes, just sometimes, things can get too hot to handle on twitter. Arguments reach boiling point more often than they should, tempers flare and we all turn into hotheads and firebrands. Does it help? There are times when it does – when we need fire in our hearts and the heat of passion – and I for one would never want to lose that. There are other times, however, when it goes over the top, when the ‘freedom’ of twitter brings out the torches and pitchforks, and we seem to turn into a fiery mob. What is needed is a cool head. Now, for me, is one of those times. If we can stay cool, calm and collected, we can turn this possible chill into something that helps us – but we do need to stay cool.

If we can do that – if we can meet these challenges without overheating – there’s an opportunity here, not just a threat. Just as the Twitter Joke Trial eventually produced the right outcome – after a long and painful fight, for sure – we might be able to produce a good outcome here. If any of these twitter libel cases reach court we might get a better result than we realise. And if we don’t, as I suggested in my blog for the Justice Gap, we have a rare opportunity to change the law – the defamation bill is going through Parliament right now. Cool heads – not hot heads – could help drive though the changes needed to produce an atmosphere that protects what we love about twitter. What we need from twitter. So let’s cool down a little. Chill… but in the right way. Fix our icy glares on those who want to use this hot atmosphere to produce the kind of chill we don’t want, and say no. Keep cool – but don’t lose the passion in our hearts.

Defamation on Twitter…

In the light of all the current interest, I’ve put together a little basic guide to defamation on twitter. This isn’t anything like ‘legal advice’, and please remember I’m an academic, not a practicing lawyer… but this should give you some idea of what defamation means, and how it might apply on twitter! Remember too, that this is based on the law as it exists in England and Wales.

What is a defamatory statement?

The basic principle is that a statement is defamatory if it substantially affects, in an adverse manner, the attitude of other people to the complainant or has it has a tendency to do so. This definition is very broad ranging so many ‘nasty’ statements about another person come into the range of potentially defamatory statements. Note there is no need to show that the statement does actually affect what other people think of the complainant: it is enough that the words have a tendency to do that.

Can anyone be defamed, or only famous people?

Everyone has a reputation – and anyone can be defamed!

If the statement is true, is it OK?

Many true statements about a person are defamatory. So to say of a convicted murderer that he is a murderer is defamatory but true. If you, and you have the burden of proving this, can prove what you said was true then you MAY have a defence available of ‘justification’. Can you prove it? See defences below!

Do you need to name the person for it to be defamation?

To be able to bring a claim a person must be able to prove that what was said pointed to them. Normally this will require that they be named but that it is not always necessary All that’s needed is for it to be possible for a ‘reasonable reader’, to be able to come to the conclusion that the statement referred to the person. If they can ‘join the dots’, then even without the name, the statement could be defamatory.

Are you OK if you put ‘allegedly’ before your statement?

No. This is an urban myth. It doesn’t help at all. Similarly, saying ‘I’ve been told that…’ or words to that effect don’t help.

Is it OK if it’s just a joke?

Not necessarily. Some ‘jokes’ have been decided to be capable of being defamatory. The question in every case is whether the words read in context adversely affect a person’s reputation, or have the tendency to do so. ‘Jokes’ can have this effect.

What kind of defences can you have?

The main defences for the kinds of statements made on twitter are likely to be:

  • Justification – that the words are ‘true in substance and in fact’. This essentially means that you’ve told the truth, and in such a way that doesn’t imply something untrue either, e.g. by using only part of the truth, by quoting out of context etc. Note that you have the burden of proving that the words are true.
  • Honest comment – if you’re offering an opinion (and not stating a fact) on a matter of public interest, and your opinion is based on true facts, then you may be able to rely on the defence of honest comment. Putting ‘in my opinion’ at the beginning of the sentence does not automatically mean the statement will be treated as such. The question the courts ask is would a reasonable reader regard the statement as one of fact or comment. So ‘in my opinion, X is a paedophile’ would be likely to be treated as a statement of fact, while ‘X is a loser’ would in all likelihood be treated as comment. The line between the two is however very imprecise. Even if all the above elements are shown to exist by the defendant, the defence will be defeated if it was made out of malice.
  • The Reynolds defence – this is a defence originally developed to protect journalists, who do their investigation and write their story with appropriate diligence. If they do that, and the story is about a matter of public interest, then even if they get their facts wrong, they may be protected. This is complex – and for most non-journalist tweeters is unlikely to apply.

Can a tweet be defamatory?

Yes – tweets can be defamatory, and are not out of the reach of the law. Tweeps have had to pay very high damages to those that they have defamed even where the offending tweet has not been read by many people.

Can a re-tweet be defamatory?

Yes – in law, every ‘republication’ potentially creates a fresh claim. The idea that putting in your bio ‘RT doesn’t mean endorsement’ will probably not provide you with protection though the question has not been tested in the courts.

Am I safe if I ‘protect’ my tweets?

Not necessarily – you can defame someone even if you only send the information to a small number of people. It depends on who those people are, rather than how many there are of them. However, if only a very small number of people ever see your defamatory, the court may strike out any claim for defamation – it has happened!

Can twitter accounts be linked to individuals?

Yes. You may think you’re anonymous, but more often than you realise, you can be found – both technically and legally. Locating people via IP addresses etc is possible, and though the use of a legal mechanism called a ‘Norwich Pharmacal Order’ an information service provider such as Twitter can be ordered to provide what details it has about you.

When you look at all of this together, it means that people need to be careful what they tweet! I would have hoped that the last couple of weeks had made that quite clear! My thanks to Professor Alastair Mullis in the preparation of this blog post.

Twitter/DataSift – an early ICO response

I’ve just received a response from the ICO to my initial question about whether or not they were investigating the Twitter/DataSift issue (about which I’ve just blogged here)

This is the full response (set down here with the permission of Dr Simon Rice of the ICO)

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Paul,

David Smith passed on your email regarding Twitter/DataSift.

The ICO is aware of an arrangement between Twitter and some third-parties which permits access to a greater volume of Tweets than would normally be accessible through the website or API. Insofar as they are required to comply with UK law both Twitter and these third-parties would need to ensure that they remain compliant with the DPA and PECR for the processing undertaken with such data.

The report linked to from your blog suggests that the data is used for purposes of thematic analysis and not for direct marketing or otherwise attempting to identify the users of the Twitter accounts. This is important because clearly a third party learning that I might be interested in their products and marketing me on that basis still needs to comply with the rules on marketing and still needs to justify why they are holding personal data relating to me; on the other hand, a third party which analyses the mass of tweets to infer that their efforts are best focussed on a particular demographic or geographical area might not face the same compliance problems. Then, of course, there are the mass of third parties whose activities lie somewhere in the middle.

The privacy policy at http://twitter.com/privacy does state that the sharing of non-personal data may take place and we would expect Twitter to comply with this. However, if you are aware of evidence that is contrary to this understanding then of course please do not hesitate to let us know.

I you have any further questions please feel free to get in contact.

Regards,

Simon Rice

Dr Simon Rice Principal Policy Adviser (Technology)

Information Commissioner’s Office, Wycliffe House, Water Lane, Wilmslow, Cheshire, SK9 5AF.

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I would welcome any responses – but it seems to me that we would need to see the details of the agreement between Twitter and DataSift (and any other subsequent agreements) to see whether they meet the requirements of the ICO as set out in the letter. There’s more to investigate here – I will be interested to see how DataSift might be able to guarantee that they will only be using the data for thematic analysis rather than direct marketing, and have written to DataSift to ask that question.

Dr Rice has asked that anyone contacting the ICO directly should use the usual ICO website or helpline (see https://www.ico.gov.uk/Global/contact_us.aspx)