Judge strips Twitter user of anonymity following violent threats against a candidate.
Anyone who’s followed political discussion on Facebook or Twitter can tell you that it’s easy for political rhetoric to get real heated, real fast. But things got a little too hot to handle when a Twitter user, identified only as “Mr. X,” threatened presidential candidate Michele Bachmann (R-MN) with a sexually charged tweet. Now, a federal judge has ruled that social networking company Twitter must release all the information they have about Mr. X to federal investigators so the threat can be fully analyzed.
According to Chief Judge Royce Lamberth of Washington, “Mr. X’s body of tweets is extremely crude and in almost incomprehensibly poor taste.” And while the judge does not personally believe that the unknown Twitter user has plans to physically harm Rep. Bachmann with a “Vietnam era machete,” he believes the authorities have a responsibility to fully investigate the threats and determine their legitimacy.
“The safety and security of those who seriously aspire to the federal government’s highest office is of paramount concern to each and every citizen,” said Lamberth. “Threats to presidential candidates undermine the very legitimacy of our electoral process.”
Charges have yet to be filed against Mr. X.
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Paul Chambers is a man from England who will appear at the High Court in London today at 10:30am GMT in order to appeal his conviction of having sent a supposedly “menacing” tweet in early 2010.
The UK has been in the news recently after two of its citizens were deported from the U.S. for having made jokes about what they planned to do on their forthcoming holiday in the States, but the Chambers case has been in progress for the better part of two years. Today’s appeal could very well be a crucial turning point in the relationship between free speech and the internet in the UK. This trial is representative of something we’re seeing all over the world right now and will probably see for at least the next decade: our legal systems are not fully equipped to cope with a digital age.
In 2010, Paul Chambers tweeted the following upon discovering that the flight he had booked to meet up with a new girlfriend had been cancelled due to snow:
“Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your s*** together, otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!”
What was quite clearly a light-hearted joke tweet borne out of frustration at not being able to see his girlfriend became something of a legal nightmare for Mr. Chambers. It seems that a member of security staff at the airport did a Twitter search, saw the aforementioned tweet, and passed it on to his manager. Despite not grading it as a credible threat, the security manager nevertheless passed the case on to the local police.
The police arrested Mr. Chambers three days later, interviewed him, and came to the conclusion that Mr. Chambers and his tweet did not pose a risk to the airport. The police then passed the decision of what to charge Mr. Chambers with to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). Realizing they could not charge him under any UK anti-terrorism laws, the CPS rather dubiously charged him using Section 127 of the UK Communications Act of 2003.
The Communications Act has, in the past, been applied to telephone calls that contained serious and credible threats. It is not clear why the CPS decided to charge Mr. Chambers at all for the sending of an exasperated tweet; indeed it is not clear why non-credible threats are passed to the police in the first place, but these two events have led Mr. Chambers to the situation that he finds himself in today.
Today Mr. Chambers is appealing the initial judgement that the tweet was “menacing” along with the fine (£350/$550) and legal costs. If you are interested in the case I would recommend following (on Twitter, naturally) Mr. Chambers’ lawyer @JackOfKent and the hashtag #twitterjoketrial.
The case is both farcical and terrifying, Kafka-esque in its complexity and absurdity. The prosecution may be taking a “you are what you tweet” approach to their case, but the outcome has wider implications for what it is “safe” to say on Twitter or Facebook or any other online space, and how far governments may feel they have a right to read and interpret our communications. This example from the UK, the SOPA and PIPA amendments, and the ongoing Megaupload case all serve to highlight a big problem we are all facing: how does the law apply in our communicative, international, interconnected brave new digital world?