Twitter Unmasks Anonymous User in U.K. Libel Case

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When we last left the U.K. super-injunction saga, a London court had issued an order asking Twitter to turn over the names of the anonymous users who tweeted about the alleged affair between footballer Ryan Giggs and reality TV star Imogen Thomas. The question on everyone’s mind was: How exactly is the U.K. going to enforce its laws on a U.S. company?

As one TechCrunch commenter succinctly put it, “Twitter is a U.S. company and the servers are hosted in the U.S. Therefore, silly U.K. rulings simply don’t apply and aren’t enforceable. End of story.”

But that might not be the end of the story. In a similar new case, Twitter has turned over to U.K. authorities the name, email address and telephone number of a man behind an anonymous account that allegedly libeled local government officials by tweeting that they used drugs, rigged ballots, and falsified expenses.

Asked in March what Twitter’s response would be to a foreign demand for user information, the company’s general counsel, Alex Macgillivray, answered: “We tell them we’re a U.S. company, we have [laws that protect publishers] here, and you’re welcome to come and try your hand at suing us here.”

In this new case the maligned U.K. town councilors seem to have taken up Twitter’s suggestion. They filed for, and got, a subpoena against the company in California Superior Court.

It must be noted that Twitter did not simply turn over the information. Confronted with the subpoena, the company informed the user, Ahmed Khan, on April 15th that it was being asked to turn over private information. Such notice allows a user an opportunity to fight the disclosure in court. In this case Khan declined, saying he didn’t have the money to take up a legal battle across the Atlantic. On May 5th, Twitter had no choice but to comply with the court order.

While it’s very commendable that Twitter stands up for its users’ right to know that their accounts are being subpoenaed so that they can defend themselves, the bottom line is that Twitter will comply with court orders. In this case, it was a U.S. court order, even if it’s on behalf of UK plaintiffs. But will it always have to be?

Twitter has opened up shop in Europe along with new London offices. This means that they now have assets and persons operating within U.K. jurisdiction and thus are subject to their laws and court orders. The deadline for complying with the Giggs order came and went on May 20 without Twitter or the plaintiff’s lawyers saying whether Twitter has complied. Anonymous Twitter users around the world no doubt can’t wait to know.

Jerry Brito is a contributor to TIME. Find him on Twitter at @jerrybrito. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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