When does free speech cross the line into something legally actionable? And at what point will a social media company step in to prevent harassment of a private individual? Those questions have been at the heart of a three-way conflict between the British publisher of the Daily Mail newspaper, a fake Twitter account pretending to belong to said company’s chief executive, and Twitter itself that has just, somewhat unexpectedly, ended before exploding into a fully-fledged lawsuit.
The conflict started when Northcliffe Media, a regional subsidiary of British publisher the Daily Mail and General Trust, noticed that someone has created an anonymous account on Twitter called NotSteveDorkland, whose profile clearly explained that it was “clearly a parody” of Northcliffe Media’s chief executive Steve Auckland. That, in itself, wasn’t especially troubling, the company claimed; what was, however, was the information that the Twitter account was passing on, which included information that apparently should’ve been confidential. In a statement, Auckland described the account as “both obsessive and offensive,” leading the company to issue a legal order that compelled Twitter to reveal the user’s personal information by August 1, and also prepare a lawsuit against the person responsible for the account.
In the legal papers prepared for the latter, the person behind NotSteveDorkland was accused not only of defamation, but also of hacking into the company’s email servers to steal information about the company’s business and employees. “At least some of the information made public on Twitter by the Defendant was not known publicly, and on information and belief, the only way that such information could be obtained was by hacking into an email account at [Northcliffe’s] business,” read the papers. Speaking anonymously to the British Guardian newspaper, the anonymous Tweeter denied the accusations. “It was a parody, pure and simple. Made a few people laugh, I hope. Pointed out some of the absurdities of corporate life,” he said, adding “It is Steve Auckland who has elevated this beyond all that by hunting me down via a US court. He must now face the consequences of his actions, as we all must. I am supremely confident I have done nothing illegal or immoral.”
At the eleventh hour – Literally, a day before the due date – an attorney acting on behalf of the anonymous user was victorious in preventing Twitter from revealing his identity, arguing that “the underlying identities of anonymous critics of powerful and public figures have a long and constitutionally-protected history in America,” before going on to declare that Northcliffe’s claims of defamation and email hacking were “threadbare,” and suggesting that it was prepared to defend the anonymous user in court against all claims. Two days later, surprisingly, Northcliffe dropped the lawsuit entirely.
In a statement explaining its latest decision, the company said that “Further engagement through the courts would require direct involvement of the very staff we are anxious to protect, so the legal process has been halted,” adding that its intent in filing the suit originally “”was not about freedom of speech, but about a barrage of anonymous tweets that amounted to cyber-bullying and harassment.”
That isn’t an argument that the anonymous NotSteveDorkland is buying, however. In his own statement, he called the company’s actions “shameful and unnecessary.” He went on, “By withdrawing the case against me they have, finally, recognised the futility of their heavy-handed approach and the entirely baseless nature of all the accusations they threw at me in a vainglorious attempt to divert attention from the real issue, namely their idea that by throwing money and bullying tactics at someone you can throttle freedom of speech.”
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