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T-Mobile and my 15 days of Twitter fame

The message came out of the blue. "Why is T-Mobile using your Twitter ID?
Written by Jon Collins, Contributor

The message came out of the blue. "Why is T-Mobile using your Twitter ID?" asked a colleague in the office. Then someone else asked me the same thing, on Facebook as it happened. I had no idea why - indeed, I had no idea what they were talking about at all. The company had mentioned me on their own Twitter page, perhaps? Or perhaps @jonno had been buried in a piece of literature somewhere, as an example?

Not precisely, as I was to find out when I started to be tweeted by people I had never heard of. "@jonno Coffee? Meet me outside library at 2pm?" I was asked by a number of random strangers, and then more puzzlingly, a couple of people said how annoyed they would be in my position.

Digging just a little more deeply, I found out that my Twitter handle @jonno was being used in window displays across the whole of the UK. Whoa. Run that past me again? I confess that I was neither annoyed, nor amused, nor anything at all really. The biggest question I had in my head was, did it matter? And if so, why?

Not knowing what else to do, I got in touch. Via Twitter of course, to @TMobileUKhelp. The reply - from "Rory" (which later turned out to be his real name) - came through pretty quickly, the conversation moved to email and played out over the days and weeks that followed. At first I thought I wanted the ads removed, after all, wasn't this a breach of privacy? But then my thoughts moved towards leaving them there, as free publicity. I even floated the idea of a deal, though exactly what form that would take, I had no idea either.

Underlying it all however, was a niggling suspicion about the nature of online identity. After all, if the ads had shown the message "John Smith", would all the Johns Smiths in the country have got in touch waving their fists in the air? A random phone number would be slightly different as that might prompt people to call it - but that wouldn't be breaching privacy any more than making up a random stream of digits and calling them.

So what is it about a Twitter ID? The service has only been around for five years, and while it has grown to 300 million users or so, is it really so much a part of modern society that it has changed the nature of privacy? I mean, were we all part of some online land-grab without realising it, in which, getting in early, I cadged the moniker 'Jonno' and thus unique, global rights to the name?

Against this mind-boggling background, the conversation with T-Mobile unrolled. My eyes widened when I was told that the signs would be removed from every single store: I suggested they stayed, but as much to continue the experiment as anything. Then, a couple of weeks later came the final nails in the coffin. "The Marketing Team have opted to remove the advertising that contains your Twitter Tag, they have removed them as this is a legal obligation," said Rory. "I’m very sorry for the delay in getting back to you regarding this but our Legal Team had to check through this for some time before being able to give a definite answer." Intrigued, I asked which laws - to which I was told it was more about company policy than anything legal.

I never saw the display signs myself, but some kindly Twitter user did send me a photo. I remain in the dark about Twitter ID rights, and (apart from feeling slightly disappointed that T-Mobile didn't think the incident merited sending me a goodwill iPad!) pretty much emotionally untouched by the whole affair. The cost to T-Mobile about rectifying the 'mistake' must have been reasonable, but possibly not prohibitive; and I have nothing but praise for Rory's responsiveness and T-Mobile's twitter service.

Which is all I know, and perhaps all I will ever know given the fact the ads have been removed. In the time that the signs were up I received only a handful of messages, so there was no great loss there - indeed, less than the normal number of misspelled Twitter ID's that come through to me by accident. I remain curious about whether any legal ramifications exist, and whether we will ever see any genuine invasions of privacy that can be caused by such a move. Insights welcome.

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