Twitter could be sued for its users' unlawful tweets

Twitter could be sued for its users' unlawful tweets

Summary: If a Twitter user posts a defamatory tweet, they could get sued. But could Twitter itself be sued as a 'secondary publisher' for simply being the platform to an 'illegal' tweet?


Could Twitter to blame for its users tweets when they are deemed unlawful, either through defamation, libel, or breaking a court order?

The truth is, depending on where you are, it's a "maybe". The answer is that nobody really knows yet.

During the super-injunction breakout in the UK last year, the entire British population was barred from mentioning names pertaining to those who had taken out court ordered gagging requests --- either on television, social media, or even in public.

Twitter said at the time it would notify users of any legal action wherever possible, but they would "be on their own" in court.

But the social microblogging service may be in hot water of its own if a legal challenge is made in the UK.

Legal analysis site Out-Law published a very interesting, theoretical piece, which describes how Twitter could fall foul of the law --- through no apparent fault of its own but by giving its users free reign over what they say.

It stems from a case in Australia, where Twitter itself is being sued by Melbourne resident Joshua Meggitt, after writer and television critic Marieke Hardy wrongly named in a tweet who she thought was behind a defamatory blog dedicated to her. She since issued an apology and reached an out-of-court legal settlement.

Those who retweeted are not being pursued, as reports the Sydney Morning Herald. However, as Twitter was the platform for the defamation, the microblogging site is being taken to court for its role as the "publisher" as it is claimed it gave the libellous blog post the greatest exposure.

Many think Twitter is immune from prosecution. But Meggitt's lawyer cites a case where Dow Jones was sued in Australia under its own defamation law, rather than U.S. law. Also, because Meggitt never signed up to Twitter, he never agreed to the site's terms and conditions, while Hardy and others did.

But in the UK, the defamation laws are less clear and open to interpretation. In this case, the law has "not yet been tested". While Out-Law explains that it could go either way, Twitter faces a troublesome time should a case rule against its favour.

It explains that in Australia, Internet service providers (ISPs) and Internet content hosts (ICHs) are publishers, and can be sued in relation to content published by a third-party. As I understand it, ISPs can be sued under UK law in a similar way to have file-sharing sites blocked to their users. Twitter therefore could be held responsible for unlawful tweets published by a user.

It explains that Twitter is not a broadcaster, and is not protected by Australian broadcasting law, and therefore could not be considered as an ICH. Twitter in the U.S. cannot be sued because it is classed as an "interactive computer service".

In the UK, however, where Twitter has a European base but remains officially headquartered in the United States, its definition is even less clear.

If Twitter users are considered publishers, and Twitter itself is therefore considered a secondary publisher, the microblogging service could be held liable for its users' tweets.

But as the piece explains, this has yet to be tested in court.

Whatever Twitter says, however, will be overruled or validated by a court. If Twitter is a publisher of sorts, it faces extremely tough times ahead.

Image source: ZDNet. Article source: Out-Law via The Register.


Topic: Social Enterprise

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Waste of resources

    So Twitter is supposed to hire about 300 people to work three 8-hour shifts reviewing and potentially censoring every tweet sent in the UK.

    Make me King, and like Vlad the Impaler, I will have my horsemen drive the lawyers over a cliff onto spikes.
    Robert Hahn
    • but...

      How can you get them all out of their offices at the same time and in the right place to begin driving them?
      • I have an idea...

        Tell them there is a killer sale on BMWs...
  • If anyone had doubts the law profession is full of slime... (nt)

    • Agreed!

    • Proposition that legal profession occupied by slime (or scum!)....

  • Nice misleading headline

    Editor Clue:
    Reversing the order of the noun and verb can directly effect the sentence's meaning.
    Are you all really so desperate for page hits that you feel it necessary to essentially lie in your headlines to attract eyeballs?
    • Heal Thyself

      I don't see a lie in the headline, nor do I see how it could have "effected" ANYTHING.
    • ZDNet Could Sue Twitter and Readers

      The headline is not a lie, just as my subject line is not a lie. Anyone can sue or be sued.

      Look, now you can quote me and take my subject and use it. You could say "As seen on ZDNet, ZDNet could sue Twitter." Just look at the extra weight that makes the statement seem to have.

      ZDNet is good at making these types of headlines. That's why I always end up here reading their stories. And why half the time I kick myself for being tricked by their headlines. Kudos to them for getting us here.
    • I'm not really tracking with you

      Perhaps you could give an example of what you mean?
      • Tracking

        The headlines implies that this is not only possible, but probable.
        The reality is that there are a number of variables that are unknown at this time, so it is not known if it is possible. There are a number of legal questions here, and also, a number of contingencies.
        An appropriate headline, asking "Could Twitter be sued...." would more accurately convey the true state of affairs. It would also garner fewer page hits.
    • It's "affect," not "effect" - get it right

      I love it when people criticize grammar and other semantics, and in their critique, they make a bone-headed mistake like not knowing the difference between the use of "affect" and "effect."
      • Errata

        Which does note affect the central point of my post.
        Nor, BTW, can you take my typo as ANY indication that I don't know the difference between affect (change) and effect (to bring about).
        That said, I love it when people make bone-headed mistakes like lumping two disparate things together as the same, like, for instance, "grammar and other semantics" which are not only not the same, but 180 degrees opposite. Hint: grammar is NOT semantics.
  • RE: Followup


    So if a vandal writes a lie about YOUR MAMA on the side of a building- you go after the building owner too?

    This is such a DUMBA$$ argument!

    Your freedom of speech is under attack.
    • RE: Followup - - Maybe

      If you SOLD that space on the side of the building, then you might have some responsibility for what's written there, even if you didn't condone it or review it. If you put the service out there, it stands to reason you have to also provide reasonable controls to make it non-deleterious.

      Even though Twitter doesn't sell space on the whole, its users are not vandals either. Twitter allows them to place their tweets.
    • If a vandal writes a lie on the side of a building- you go after the owner?

      This was actually practised under the rule of Generalissimo Franco.
      One could really get someone into serious trouble by painting some politically incorrect slogans on their house walls.
      That was after the Spanish civil war for those who are historically challenged.
  • The eleventh commandment. Thou shall not think.

    This is passing off the legal responsibilities of the law to a private company. Twitter has to judge and jury every tweet, decide on its legality versus freedom of speech, get into shady areas of uncertainty and then,,,,,,, delete an already posted tweet(?) all without legal training, That alone would get them into trouble with the legal profession for misrepresentation and overstepping their boundaries. My phone company would be held responsible for what I say and hear and would also cross swords with Lawyers. The Post Office for what I read and write and anyone who could hear me for what I say or think and again there's the Lawyers thing. A Police State where imposed, untrained Lawyers outnumber the real ones. This may be nothing more than a long term plan to eliminate Lawyers and reduce legal costs while diverting your attention away from the plan until it's too late. Just remember, not all plans are well thought out.
  • Only a messenger

    This is an ancient problem. If you don't like the message, go after the messenger. Sites like Twitter and others like them are simply a messenger. Has anybody ever held a telephone company responsible, because someone planned a bank robbery or other crime over the telephone? What's different about this?
    • The difference is

      that a phone conversation is a private conversation between 2 people where a tweet goes out potentially to thousands. It would be more akin to a local business allowing people to leave illegal notes on a cork board in their business.
      • Not the difference

        Apparently you have never had a three way call, a conference call, or heard a telephone interview on the radio, or TV, or had internet over your phone lines.