Twitter and Google hand over data: We're all newspapers now

The great data handover has begun it seems, with both Twitter and Google now set to release details of users to the authorities. This follows various internet-based media fiascos, suggesting no-one online can hide behind anonymity any longer.

The rules that newspapers have been subjected to for over a century are now likely to be ever more prevalent to the general Twitter user in the coming months, as the battle to find out who tweets what or who emails who becomes ever more important.   

First came the footballer-who-shall-not-be-named episode, which has resulted in an attempt made to force Twitter to release details of the injunction breaking user. Next was South Tyneside council acquiring Twitter data connected to someone who had published potentially libellous statements on a blog.This crucial case could help support that of the other footballer's. If that wasn't enough, Google now seems to have gotten involved, facing a court order that will require it to hand over emails deleted by Gordon Ramsay's father in law Chris Hutchinson.

Given the complexities of all the cases and the implications carried for the day to day internet user, we thought it best if we break things down for you.

The speed at which information dissipates across the Internet is so drastically different to that which our legal system is used to controlling, that much of it has been forced to play catch up. Enforcing a superinjunction on something like a newspaper is relatively easy as those who break it can be directly traced. Twitter, however, allows increased levels of anonymity, faster spread of potentially injunction-breaking info and more people to inadvertently break them. 

With the anonymous footballer case, things are relatively straightforward. Someone has identified them via Twitter, breaking the superinjunction and subsequently courts and lawyers (as well as the media) have rushed to find out his identity.

In breaking the injunction he or she is liable for contempt of court and as such could face a hefty fine or worse. The reason the case is so important is because until now Twitter has remained tight lipped about users' identities. Committing contempt of court is so easy to do in 140 characters that it poses a real threat to those of us who join in with the daily retweeting or posting of interesting information, the entire point of Twitter itself.

Next comes the, perhaps, far more crucial case involving South Tyneside authorities. Officials and councillors went all the way to California to try and obtain the identity of a person who libelled them in a blog called "Mr Monkey". Libel, unlike slander, is normally committed by newspapers where it exists in a more permanent form. But the emergence of increasing numbers of libel cases involving Twitter, like that of Courtney Love who had to pay $430,000 for a tweet, place many of us under threat.

Freedom of speech is the central theme here and whether or not cases like this involving Twitter are restricting it. Also important is the affect that the South Tyneside case may have on that of the footballer's case, as it is the first time Twitter has given in to legal pressure from court action brought by a British group.

Keen not to be exempt from the data freedom farce, Gordon Ramsay has now got Google involved, demanding that emails deleted by his father in law, Chris Hutchinson, be handed over.

A superinjunction lifted earlier this week revealed reasons for Hutchinson's sacking. The emails in question were conversations between Ramsay and his solicitor and were said to be deleted after Ramsay's email account was hacked (more likely the password obtained). Unlike the Twitter case this is much more straightforward, with those in question easier to identify and no superinjunction involved. That said, if Google does follow the court order obtained by Ramsay and information is handed over, that will be yet another case which sees information revealed by an internet giant. 

For some this is reassuring, after all the anonymity available with the Internet can pose legitimate threats and opportunities for many to act unpleasantly or even illegally and without punishment.

Many of us engage daily with social media, taking advantage of all the communication and interaction the Internet offers.

This increasing trend towards data being released to authorities could place restrictions on those who use the Internet for legitimate reasons. Gone are the days when Twitter was a platform for sharing opinions and enjoying others' statements, from now on we are going to have to be careful and considered, just like the mainstream media has for years, when we tweet.

Should Twitter hand over details? Let us know...