Jul 30, 2012 No Comments ›› Pat Dollard
(FT) An anonymous Twitter user who allegedly set up an account pretending to be a senior executive at the UK media group Daily Mail and General Trust has had a case filed against him by the publisher for illegally intercepting emails, impersonation and defamation.
The case is the latest example of a rising challenge to corporate reputations – the rapid rise of Twitter critics. The open nature of Twitter, where users can broadcast their 140-character outbursts to a potential audience of millions, has made it a popular platform for praising and criticising companies and individuals. The simplicity of a tweet has further lowered the barriers to online publishing after the rise of blogging and social media, while the brevity of Twitter postings can have the effect of sharpening opinions.
However, Northcliffe Media, DMGT’s regional publishing arm, has claimed an anonymous Twitter account has gone beyond mere criticism. It is alleging in a US court that the Twitter user behind the name @UnSteveDorkland posed as its chief executive Steve Auckland, hacked into the company’s computer system and spied on staff. The user’s real name remains unknown.
Court documents, filed this month by Northcliffe in San Francisco where Twitter is based, reveal the UK company is accusing the anonymous account holder of creating or maintaining at least three Twitter accounts that impersonated Mr Auckland.
“At least some of the information made public on Twitter by the Defendant was not known publicly, and on information and belief,” the court documents said. “The only way that such information could be obtained was by hacking into an email account at [Northcliffe’s] business.”
The anonymous tweeter, who responded to the Financial Times by telephone after a direct message on Twitter, denies the charges. “The charges are preposterous. We will be fighting the action vigorously in court,” he said.
Northcliffe became aware of the accounts about two months ago and claims the Twitter user was disseminating sensitive and personal information about its staff.
Steve Auckland said in a statement: “Some of the recent anonymous activity on Twitter has been both obsessive and offensive. We will not tolerate such behaviour … I will not tolerate any form of harassment of Northcliffe Media’s employees, especially from anonymous sources.” Northcliffe has not made public the specific tweets.
Northcliffe is seeking a full jury trial and damages for loss of reputation. The company is pursuing legal action in the US because Twitter is headquartered in California and has its servers there.
Twitter does comply with legitimate legal requests for users’ personal information but has a policy of informing the individual subject to a subpoena before handing over their details. Previous subpoenas have targeted activists in the Occupy Wall Street movement and supporters of WikiLeaks, the whistleblowing organisation.
However, relatively few companies go to this extreme to protect themselves from abuse. More common is a request to take down the offending tweet, which Twitter is able to block from view on a country-by-country basis, under laws such as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
Twitter has complied with a legal order in California and plans to inform DMGT of the account holder’s identity by Wednesday. However, @UnSteveDorkland, who is being assisted by a pro-bono lawyer, has launched legal action to fight the US subpoena to reveal his identity.
In January, a spoof Twitter account impersonating Wendi Deng Murdoch, wife of media mogul Rupert Murdoch, successfully confused both his News Corp communications team and the messaging site’s own staff, highlighting the ease with which identities can be misappropriated online.
An anonymous Twitter profile was set up last year purporting to chronicle conversations overheard in Goldman Sachs’ office elevators and has reached more than 128,000 followers.