Court forces Twitter to expose anonymous government critic

According to The Guardian, a California court has forced Twitter to hand over personal details of an account-holder who criticized local government officials in Tyneside, England. There is some confusion today due to The Telegraph inarticulately tying this libel case, fought in U.S courts, to a forthcoming privacy case in the U.K., where footballer Ryan Giggs' superinjuncted penis was exposed on Twitter.


  1. He didn’t just criticise the council, it’s a libel case.

    So, what’s the slant on this?

    Someone breaks the law and then should be allowed to hide behind “internetional boundaries” to get away with it.

    Or do we all think : someone broke the law and is getting their just desserts? Finally someone is proving that you can’t commit crime and hide behind the anonymity of the net. About time these commentards learn a bit of respect and common sense.

    If you think he should get away with it, how far does it go?

    If the bloke was selling illegal drugs online, would it be OK to subpoena his details?
    What about contract killers? etc….

    1. Yes if he was breaking a law that the rest of the civilized world didn’t recognize as a stupid vestigial remnant of tyranny then it would be sensible to subpoena his personal communications.

      It’s a UK Libel case, comparing that to real lawbreaking carries the same weight in rhetoric as comparing jaywalking to serial murder.

      1. Newspapers regularly get fined for printing libel.

        Are you saying that we would be better off living in a world without the protection given by fear of libel proceedings?
        One newspaper editor has an argument with someone or just decides they don’t like them, next thing, that someone is on the front page being charged with paedophilia offences.
        How can they prove themselves innocent apart from buying their own newspaper company.

        And if twitter as a company have disclosed other information than the real owner of the account, then surely that is a matter for some sort of counter claim against them. Unless that information was part of what they were ordered to disclose by the court.
        In which case the court order was wrong. Probably written by someone without a clue what twitter actually is.

        This isn’t the first time someone in the UK has got into trouble for posting something on Twitter (twitter joke trial), so we should already be aware that it is not a secure/anonymous mechanism for communication.
        Any revolutionary still using it deserves arresting for stupidity as well as whatever revolution they were planning.

        1. Max,

          Libel is most often used by the more powerful to attack the less powerful. Comparing it to the sale of drugs and, comparing that to contract murder suggests your priorities may be in line with the system in power but are off with common sense and lots of others reading this thread.

          It’s interesting that in your fictional example you chose the make it a newspaper editor attacking a less powerful individual – this is almost never how libel is used and shows you are being manipulative and bending the truth in an attempt to win a point by using an unlikely example. Newspapers can be sued for libel, but it’s often by people with far more money and resources then the independent newspapers in question, who are often trying to expose political corruption.

          Finally, you announce someone should be arrested for making an unwise decision while under government surveillance or when being critical of people in power. You are either a troll or a sheep or a lackey. Either way you are simply wrong and out of touch.

        2. Newspapers regularly get fined for printing libel.

          Which is dreadful, because they’re the ones for whom libel is a serious concern. I’m sick of news printing and broadcasting outright lies about politicians and nobody caring, while normal citizens have to watch their step.

  2. The thing I find most interesting is how the U.K. people went to California, where they could get a judge to actually compel Twitter to hand over the goods. Libel tourism usually goes precisely in the other direction, with Americans heading to British courts where libel laws are strict and stupid.

  3. Max,

    There are two reasons this is super extra bad:

    1. Any revolutionary is likely to be doing something illegal. This makes twitter suddenly a really bad choice for revolutionary communications. Since the service was providing some huge benefits in that regard up to now, I’d say that’s a loss. Governments will always declare things that undermine them to be illegal, so this allows them to expose anything they want.

    2. Because of one tweet, twitter has been forced to compromise every tweet to this account. As the guy says in the article, that means any whistleblowing to that account as a result of the guy being a councilmember is now exposed. I realize that whistleblowers should have proxies, etc., but many of them don’t. This is like being authorized to go through all of the guy’s mail for the last few years because of a libel charge.

    Personally, I don’t see how we should be putting any of our personal communications through a propriety, company-owned platform that can expose us like this. I wouldn’t use Word if everything I wrote on it could simply be exposed by court order. I wouldn’t use email if email were owned and controlled entirely by one company. I can’t understand using twitter and facebook for anything personal, let alone sensitive. Decentralization just makes so much more sense in the long run…

    1. Your first reason for this being really bad is only true for you: no-one else seriously thought that Twitter would choose not to comply with a court order issued by the Superior Court in the same county that Twitter has its HQ, so no-one else’s illusions have been shattered.
      As best I can tell, your second reason isn’t true at all: the data being disclosed are only those that can be used to identify the owner(s) of the accounts, not any tweets the accounts might have received.

    2. I should say that any revolutionary is going to be doing something illegal: revolutions are illegal.

  4. It’s nice to see a local story on Boingboing! Well, I say nice…

    There seems to be two stories being conflated here and in the UK media:

    1) A scandal involving the local airport, councils, and the use of Twitter by whistleblowers
    2) A libel/defamation case against a blogger who may be the councillor in the first story, however I can find no further clear reporting of this case in the UK press

    1) There is an article in the current issue of Private Eye (a satirical/investigative journalism magazine here in the UK) which sheds considerably more light on this issue than the Guardian article used above. Unfortunately, it is not available on-line (beyond the summary here:, but the articles that lead to this story can be found here:

    The main point to this scandal is the use by South Tyneside council (one of the Councils involved in the dodgy refinancing deal) of courts in California to compel Twitter to provide details and information of the Twitter activities of Councillor Ahmed Khan who helped expose the secretive deal. The councillor believes the council is trying to identify whistleblowers who leaked documents to Cllr Khan.

    2) In a similar action, but as far as I can tell unrelated to this matter, South Tyneside Council is also using Californian courts to persue a blogger called MrMonkey for defamation, as the WordPress blogging service is based there. This seems to be what Max (poster number 1) is talking about.

    Tl:dr – uk media can’t report anything clearly, UK local council using Californian courts to persue a UK whistleblower, possibly related blogger sued for defamation

  5. We should all remember that giving the government more power is irreversible. It takes a revolution to change it back and that is a painful route. Who the fuck cares about a twitter tweet anyway? The amount of crap spewed on the internet is so diverse and inciting that the only way to deal with it is press the delete button or just ignore it.

  6. Well I live in South Tyneside, and the first I heard of all this was today on the national news.
    Maybe I should read the local rag but since nothing of importance *ever* happens in this town it’s usually a waste of time.

    I don’t think the councillors should have to put up with being slandered, but since it was them personally, and not the council itself that was being attacked the council shouldn’t be footing the bill.

  7. So far I have not read anywhere that Twitter Inc has ever refused to realise Court ordered demands for user details in the US. In the Bradley Manning related case, they went to court because the request was being kept secret from the Twitter users. This has now given the Twitter users themselves the opportunity to defend themselves. (Credit to Twitter Inc for that stand.)

    As far as I remember the Twitterjoketrial guy did not post anonymously so there was no need to involve Twitter to get his personal details. The Plod looked at his timeline and seized his computer and phone (and still haven’t given them back, the thieving gets).

    UK libel laws and privacy injunctions aren’t working and need to be fixed, but then so to do the regular abuses by the UK Press as in the Joanna Yeates’s landlord coverage.
    Currently if you can afford it you get your way in court, if there is enough negative publicity the Government might change things eventually.

  8. I can’t believe I’m the first to ask this, but what is a superinjuncted penis? And how can it be exposed on twitter, I thought that was text only?

  9. I am not allowed to discuss why this is happening or what super-injunctions are responsible for this but I am allowed to explain British law.

    A corporate entity (or government body) can not bring a libel case, only an individual can do that.

    Why, I ask, is a government body paying British tax payers money to bring a case to the California courts when they know they can not, once they have the name of the Tweeter, do anything with that?

    Perhaps they just want to be sure that, in the future, any super-injunctions are not talked about…

    Like the one about Tony Blair being had up for war crimes or the one about the Chancellor fiddling his expenses….

    There is a bunch of suits knocking at my door…. back in a mo

  10. I’m a bit confused by this, probably because I’m a legal dummy. How is a California court bound by the laws of another country? This isn’t even international law. Also, why would Twitter fold on this and not appeal to a Federal court, when they have stood firm in the recent past?

    1. this is not international law, as it is in the California courts it is California law.

      Who knows what Twitter is doing as according to the super-injunction we are not allowed to even discuss what is going on with the super-injunction or if one even exists.


      1. this is not international law, as it is in the California courts it is California law.

        I understand that it was filed in a California court of law. However, it seems that the basis for asking the court to order Twitter to expose the blogger was based on English libel law. So I don’t understand why the California court should care?

        1. That’s the bit that’s confusing me. Did the council just have to state they were preparing a CIVIL case against the Twitter user in the UK and that was enough to get the US Court to make Twitter cough up the information?

          And if it is true that, as lawyer Mark Stephens says, “Local authorities cannot sue for libel”, what case did they say they were pursuing in the UK?

  11. As I understand it, libel suits can’t be brought by councils themselves, so why are they spending tax payer’s money on obtaining this information on behalf of their members? That should be done privately, by the individual who can bring a libel case.

    Also, I thought the US had a law which forbade the participation on courts and companies in UK libel cases.

    1. It seems like something akin to a SLAPP. From the Guardian piece:

      “I was never even told they were taking this case to court in California. The first I heard was when Twitter contacted me. I had just 14 days to defend the case and I was expected to fly 6,000 miles and hire my own lawyer – all at my expense.” — Ahmed Khan (the revealed tweeter)

      ie: it probably wouldn’t have stood up in court, *if* the guy could afford to defend it.

      But it seems there is more to this than meets the eye (see TurquoiseDays’ links). £377m airport debts? Multi-million pound bonuses to the directors who negotiated the mortgage for said debt? Who knows…

  12. I should add that they seem to be chasing the source of this blog, which is full of claims about local councillors which, if false, would likely qualify as libel anywhere in the world. Most notably, there are quite specific accusations of election fraud, which I haven’t seen stated anywhere else (ie by publications with legal departments who do fact-checking).

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