Rod Liddle asks a question of the kind one frequently sees raised by media types:
[W]hy is [Lord McAlpine] not suing Twitter itself? It is not Philip Schofield who the peer is suing, but ITV. Surely, likewise, Twitter needs to take some responsibility for its output? If, unlike broadcasters, it has no legal responsibility for what is put out through its witless conduit, then surely there is less of a responsibility on the people who use it, too?
On the face of it this seems a reasonable question. But it doesn’t take long to appreciate that it really isn’t and that, though doubtless well-intentioned, it doesn’t make a heap of sense. That is, it misunderstands both Twitter and the nature of the web.
ITV employs Philip Schofield and is responsible for the programmes it chooses to broadcast. If Lord McAlpine has been defamed on Twitter – something which has not yet been proven, incidentally – he has not been defamed by Twitter itself but, rather, by individuals for whom Twitter has no responsibility.
Ah, but shouldn’t Twitter – this “witless conduit” apparently – bear some responsibility for the twittering of its users? Apparently so or so old-media types keep telling us. But they never quite seem to get around to explaining quite why Twitter should be treated in this fashion.
There is, I think, some musty suspicion that Twitter is some kind of publisher and this therefore makes it somehow responsible for what its users say. Again, this seems reasonable until you remember or appreciate that Twitter is not a publisher.
Perhaps it is helpful to think of Twitter as an enormous noticeboard upon which anyone may pin a message to be seen by their friends and, sometimes, by many other browsers too. If Twitter were a “real” (as opposed to a “virtual”) noticeboard, would its owners be liable for the messages pinned to it? Perhaps occasionally but not obviously so any more than it is plain that telephone companies should be held accountable for slanders passed along their wires.
Granted, Twitter has previously offered to assist law enforcement agencies in many countries. But there is a difference between assisting efforts to locate or identify the holder of an account suspected of leaving a trail of libels across the web and bearing responsibility for those defamations in the first place. I should have thought this obvious but it seems it is not. Twitter has made it quite clear to is users that they stand alone and cannot expect to be sheltered by Twitter or presume that Twitter will act to protect them. Again, I can’t say that I find this stance objectionable.
And so, in the end, the suggestion that Twitter should be responsible for individual tweets is, in the end, a suggestion that Twitter cannot continue to exist in anything like its present form. I cannot see what use is served by that. On the contrary, it seems evident to me that much more good would be lost and that, like many attempts to repress speech, cleaning up the occasional mess ends up causing much more damage than was done by that mess itself.
Give something clever this Christmas – a year’s subscription to The Spectator for just £75. And we’ll give you a free bottle of champagne. Click here.