Twitter Prepared to Hand Over Private Data to Authorities, but Should It?

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Earlier this month Ryan Giggs, a professional soccer player who plays for the U.K.’s Manchester United, obtained a court-ordered injunction to keep secret the details of an extra-marital affair with British television personality Imogen Thomas. The short story is that he didn’t want the U.K. press writing about his misconducts.

The move appeared to backfire, however, when news of the injunction spread like wildfire through over 70,000 Twitter accounts, causing Mr. Giggs to take up legal action against “persons unknown” as well as the social network itself.

Legal experts assumed that gag orders breached on Twitter were protected because the website is outside of the British legal system’s jurisdiction.

(Read More: Twitter’s Super-Duper U.K. Censorship Trouble)

However, in a surprising move, a senior executive from Twitter admitted to the Telegraph that it would turn user information over to the authorities if it were “legally required” to.

British Attorney General Dominic Grieve had previously warned that people who broke injunctions online were in for a “”rude shock,” and the admission calls into question legal jurisdictions on the internet (which we’ve already discussed extensively). Depending on how this shakes out, the admission could also open the floodgates for similarly aggrieved celebrities to follow suit.

Yesterday, we wrote about how courts (albeit American ones) have previously ordered information accessible only through private Facebook accounts be made available in public litigation, which suggests a trend of willingness among the social networks to comply with the law. Of course, the implications could prove critical to a user’s right to free speech on the internet, but again, it raises a question we’ll continue to see: How far should these protections extend?

(Read More: Viewpoint: Facebook Is Not Your Friend)

Users will always find ways to circumnavigate legalities and protect their online identities (fake email accounts, ISP-addresses, etc.), but the line become hazy when social networks are faced with the dilemma of protecting their users (usually in their best interest) while complying with the law. Legally, U.K. laws are enforceable in the United States, but from a practical standpoint they’re much harder to enforce. But as the web causes international lines to blur and the world to shrink, it’s a problem we’ll be facing time and time again.

For example, Imogen Thomas, the mistress in the above-mentioned infidelity case, has reportedly been receiving death threats to herself and her family over Twitter. She tells the Sun, “’I fear my life is in danger. I had to get police involved now they’re threatening my nephew. He’s the most important thing in my life.”

So where does responsibility fall?

More on TIME.com:

Silly Legal Action Won’t Stop Twitter in the U.K.

47% of Facebook Walls Contain Profanity, but Should Employers Give a #@$%?

Twitter Acquires TweetDeck, Won’t Kill It

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