Twitter has been caught in the middle of a legal storm recently in the US, which culminated in the social media company being subpoenaed by the courts.
Twitter fought against the court action for weeks, but finally handed over the tweets of Malcolm Harris from an Occupy Wall Street protest at Brooklyn Bridge back in October 2011 (below). Though the tweets are currently sealed, a hearing on 21st September will determine whether or not they can be used to establish whether the police deliberately led the protestors on to the bridge in order to arrest them for obstructing traffic. Prosecutors believe Harris’s tweets will prove that he was fully aware of police orders to keep off the bridge’s roadway during the sit-in. In an email to Mashable, Harris said, ‘I’m disappointed that Twitter has decided to hand over my tweets, but I still have hopes the courts will make the right decision before the information gets handed over to the prosecutors’.
Whether the tweets in question should be made available for the court case does, in several ways, seem rather nonsensical.
Twitter owns all user-generated content, and as such, was told by the courts that they must hand over the tweets to avoid facing contempt charges and heavy fines. The social network’s terms of service clearly state the rules around ownership of shared content, and every user must agree to this before using the site.
Whether the tweets in question should be made available for the court case does, in several ways, seem rather nonsensical. After all, the messages were initially made available for the whole world to see. People use Twitter knowing the nature of it, and probably use it for that very reason: they want to share their thoughts and actions with the public. The fact that they then complain about it doesn’t make much sense at all.
[Harris' situation] is likely to make people sit up and think about what exactly they’re sharing, and what the repercussions of that could be.
The simple fact also remains that if you’re breaking the law or doing something that may get you into trouble, it isn’t very wise to share the details on social networks. Stories about online harassment, or ‘trolling’ as it’s now often called, has highlighted how seriously the authorities are taking content that’s posted on social networks. In recent months, messages sent to Olympic diver Tom Daley and Take That singer Gary Barlow have led to police investigations. It would seem that it’s only a matter of time before the police start to use social networks not only to catch people in the act, but also to build up intelligence about suspects and their actions. Though the case of Harris and the case of these internet trolls are clearly very different, they both demonstrate the approach that is being taken to publicly shared messages online.
Though the outcome of the Harris situation remains to be seen, this could end up being a landmark case in the world of social media, and set a precedent in regard to the protection of people's tweets and Facebook posts. Either way, it’s likely to make people sit up and think about what exactly they’re sharing, and what the repercussions of that could be.
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