Public Tweets and Privacy Boundaries Becoming More Defined
If you use Twitter, what you post to the micro-blogging service is public. Unless you post a DM (a private message only visible to the person you’re sending it to) or your Twitter account is a private one (none of the tweets are generally visible unless others follow you only with your permission), what you say in a tweet is there for all to see, by anyone with an internet connection.
That’s always seemed pretty clear. You post a tweet, anyone can see it whether you intend it only for your own followers or not.
An interesting situation arose in the UK this week where a Twitter user made a complaint against two national newspapers which had published some of her tweets. The Twitter user argued that posts to Twitter meant for her followers were, essentially, private and that the newspapers had therefore invaded her privacy.
The newspaper industry regulator, the Press Complaints Commission, rejected her claims, supporting the newspapers’ defence that the complainant’s Twitter account was not private and that her posts could be read by anyone and not just those individuals who actively chose to follow her.
[…] In reaching its decision on the case, the Commission judged that the publicly accessible nature of the information was a “key consideration”. It was quite clear that the potential audience for the information was actually much larger than the 700 people who followed the complainant directly, not least because any message could easily be retweeted to a wider audience. It also took into account the type of information that had been published by the newspapers, which in this case related directly to the complainant’s professional life as a public servant. In all the circumstances, the Commission concluded that the newspapers’ actions did not constitute “an unjustifiable intrusion” into the complainant’s privacy.
PCC Director Stephen Abell commented: “This is an important ruling by the Commission. As more and more people make use of such social media to publish material related to their lives, the Commission is increasingly being asked to make judgements about what can legitimately be described as private information. In this case, the Commission decided that republication of material by national newspapers, even though it was originally intended for a smaller audience, did not constitute a privacy intrusion.”
In a separate and equally significant event, the Supreme Court last week issued guidance on using Twitter in the courtroom.
Issued as a press notice (PDF), the Court’s guidance is quite clear:
[…] Because cases before the Supreme Court do not involve interaction with witnesses or jurors, and because there is rarely any reason why what is said in court should not be placed immediately in the public domain, the Justices of the Supreme Court are content with legal teams, journalists and members of the public communicating to the outside word what is happening in the courtroom.
Important exceptions include cases where there are formal reporting restrictions in place, family cases involving the welfare of a child, and cases where publication of proceedings might prejudice a pending jury trial. Those attending such cases will be informed by notices placed at the doors of the courtroom that restrictions are in place.
Lord Phillips, President of the Supreme Court, comments: “The rapid development of communications technology brings with it both opportunities and challenges for the justice system. An undoubted benefit is that regular updates can be shared with many people outside the court, in real time, which can enhance public interest in the progress of a case and keep those who are interested better informed.
“We are fortunate that, by the time a case reaches the Supreme Court there is very seldom any reason for any degree of confidentiality, so that questions about what should and should not be shared with those outside the courtroom do not usually arise. This means that we can offer a green light to tweeting and other forms of communication, as long as this does not disrupt the smooth running of the court.”
The press notice does conclude by saying that this guidance relates only to cases in the Supreme Court itself, stating “Different considerations apply to other courts, for a range of legal reasons.”
Still, significant steps that make the boundaries look clearer.
- Press Complaints Commission statement: PCC rules on first complaint about republication of Tweets by mainstream media
- Supreme Court press notice: Guidance issued for tweeting the twists and turns of Supreme Court cases