Suing Twitter for Libel is a Mug's Game - Spectator Blogs

20 November 2012

3:55 PM

20 November 2012

3:55 PM

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.


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Show comments
  • rndtechnologies786


  • Gaspardasalo

    A post in twitter is public – in effect no different from printing a poster of the tweet and displaying it in the high street. If your words can be proved to be llbelous or defamatoty to another individual, then you need to be prepared to be sued for libel. Twitter has no accountability in this, as it is not responsible for content of posts.
    A newspaper would be accountable if the article is not attributed to a named reporter, however the newspaper may have written discalimers, in which case a a law suit would bypas the paper and be directed at the individual reporter.

  • Ron Todd

    If I put up a notice board then charge people to use it would I have any legal responsibility for what was displayed on the board?

    • Noa


  • FrankS

    I gather that some “twitterers” have more “followers” than some national papers have readers. Each one of these followers will read a “tweet” saying, for instance, “A Massie hasn’t really thought this through”. Why should the tweet be considered a private message when the paper is deemed a publication?
    By the way, the “person to person” equivalent of libel is slander – also an offence, though probably harder to prove.

  • William Reid Boyd

    Of course Lord McAlpine was defamed on Twitter!

    As for the rest of it, legislation has to catch up with Twitter. Presumably incorporating some kind of good faith defence.

    Hardly 10 years ago incidentally, internet service providers were still making these kinds of arguments about policing the web in relation to child pornography. The same argument you raise was made that a postal service couldn’t be held responsible for what it was delivering. Except it wasn’t being delivered under a plain cover, but just a mouse click away.

  • Kevin

    I think a service provider such as Twitter could be considered to be a publisher as a matter of (defamation) law.

    The question would probably be whether the publisher had any knowledge of the defamatory content of a message. This may be the case, for example, if the person alleging defamation had given them notice of it and they continued to publish it.

  • Baron

    Alex, so what would be the legal position of a newspaper that publishes a libelous piece with a disclaimer, you know, saying, we, the newspaper take no responsibility for the article, the views are those of the author alone. Could that be enough to turn the newspaper into your blackboard?

    • CG

      Um no.

  • Noa

    As some stage the courts will be asked to define whether or not Twitter and other such media are merely notice boards, as you describe them, or publishers. As they profit from the libels they carry one suspects that they will be considered to have some responsibility.

    • south

      If one suspects that then one is wrong.

  • DavidNcl

    It’s the paper mills, dammit!

  • June

    What next? Sue the ISP and the Broadband provider for providing the wherewithal to post malicious tweets?

    • Kevin

      That roughly describes the case of Godfrey v. Demon Internet Service.

      • William Reid Boyd

        Yes, that’s correct. In that case Demon Internet relied on a common law defence of “innocent dissemination” in a case involving defamation in an on-line forum, but lost. Twitter presumably would rely on the same defence if it was sued in a UK court.