Information obtained by South Tyneside Council on a Twitter user accused of defamation could prove to be a landmark case in British libel law, a media law expert has said.
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The council forced the California-based company to hand over information on the blogger "Mr Monkey", who is alleged to have defamed three council members and one council official on the site. The action is said to have cost the council around £75,000.
"This is a warning shot to people that they cannot post things online with impunity," said Amanda Ball, senior lecturer on Media Law at Nottingham Trent University.
Laws apply to social media
"This action might give people food for thought. The laws apply in exactly the same way to social media as other forms of media. If you put out a string of anonymous postings there could be repercussions. The difficulty is in policing [these sites]," she added.
But the case is unlikely to cause a surge of UK-based Twitter users issuing subpoenas against the micro blogging site. "It is still complex, particularly with Twitter based in California. If Twitter sets up a European base it could be easier [for people to sue] under UK jurisdiction," said Ball.
Legal proceedings against Twitter
The news follows Ryan Giggs' recent legal proceedings against Twitter after he was named as the footballer alleged to have had an affair with Big Brother contestant Imogen Thomas. Giggs was widely named as having issued the gagging order after MP John Hemming identified him during a debate in Parliament.
But Media lawyer Steve Kuncewicz at Manchester firm Gateley, says it is doubtful that the South Tyneside case will impact on the footballer's legal proceedings.
This is because the council's case was launched under Californian law, whereas the footballer's action is in an English court, he says. "Yes, this is a very big deal, but it is only significant in relation to US law and not ours," Kuncewicz told Media Lawyer.
South Tyneside has come under fire for the amount it has spent in taxpayer's money to bring the action. But a spokesman from the council said: "The council has a duty of care to protect its employees and as this blog contains damaging claims about council officers, legal action is being taken to identify those responsible."
The first UK defamation case believed to be brought over a Twitter posting was made in March this year.
The defendant, Caerphilly Plaid Cymru councillor Colin Elsbury, faced an estimated £53,000 to pay in damages after he posted a defamatory remark about a fellow councillor.