The Scots Law Student

The SLS : Life and trials of learning law in Scotland

Tag: twitter

Twitter refuses to secretly hand over user data

Twitter has gone to court over demands by the US Department of justice to hand over the data of individuals linked to Wikileaks, without telling the users they were doing it.

Good on twitter.

The ability of authorities to get the data of users they are investigating without their knowledge is supposed to allow investigations to take place without alerting the people under investigation that they are. It’s the 21st century equivalent of the stakeout.

It’s wholly inappropriate just now because anyone on a list of people who is linked to Wikileaks who doesn’t realise they are under investigation shouldn’t be on the list because they clearly don’t work for Wikileaks. The PCPro Podcast recently pointed out that they had followed Wikileaks on Twitter and wondered if they are under investigation now, for that matter am I?

The problem with serving secret orders on internet intermediaries is that it lets you show the warrant to the wrong person. Instead of showing it to the person who is involved and potentially interested in challenging the order you show it to a business which is far more concerned about not annoying the authorities too much and not going bankrupt. What reason does a company have to spend their finite resources defending faceless users, perhaps even overseas, who don’t even know they’re being defended?

The more I think about what Twitter, a popular but still fledgling business, has done the more impressed I am about it. That is a rare Web 2.0 company that cares more about customers than their float.



The truth about “treason”

Re: Wikileaks- In a free society, we are supposed to know the truth. In a society where truth becomes treason, we are in big trouble.

It is that simple.

From Twitter

As spotted on @antonvowl:

You wouldn’t steal a car (and MW2 – who needs topicality?)

An analogy that works simplifies issues for people by letting them transfer their pre-formed opinion of one thing to another. An analogy that doesn’t can backfire to the point of leaving people suspicious that they are being deceived. The car theft analogy is a popular one in discussions of behaviour of which you disapprove. I’m sure everyone reading this is familiar with the You Wouldn’t Steal a Car videos on DVDs and movies in cinemas – the message is that you wouldn’t download a movie either (I think it’s pretty clear that you wouldn’t – you’ve paid to see the You Wouldn’t Steal a Car videos after all). The IT Crowd satires this ( pretty well.

I suspect that car theft is used because it is so morally unambiguous, a lot of people wouldn’t say that stealing a loaf of bread to feed your starving family is wrong at all so “you wouldn’t steal a loaf of bread” has never caught on whereas car theft is harder to defend and so it gets compared to anything and everything that’s not liked.

The problem with the analogy is that it’s too simple and broadly used. Things can be bad without being like car theft. If something is not like car theft then comparing it to car theft will not help your argument. The main issue is car theft involves someone losing something (a car) and file sharing doesn’t involve someone losing any asset – the analogy is so ill fitting a rejoinder of “I wouldn’t steal a car, but I’d download one if I could” has sprung up in some quarters.

A very clear misuse of the car theft analogy came in the Modern Warfare 2 “Javelin Glitch” – you could juggle your weapons in such a way that that the game would forget about your grenade until you were killed and then it would get so confused you’d explode. It’d often have the effect of killing people near your character (like your killer). Some people hated it and other people loved it (Penny Arcade decided it was the only way to beat the over-powered dual shotgun game-play style).

What I am describing, of course, is a sneaky way of playing a video game in which you pretend to be a soldier and shoot people. Microsoft reacted by banning the Xbox Live accounts of those using it and rushing a patch out uncharacteristically quickly. There was a fair amount of discussion at the time if using any particular mistake caused by a developer was worse than another and if it merited locking you out of an online gaming system you had paid to access. There’s apparently some provisions in the terms and conditions to allow cheaters to be banned so it seems on the face of it to be all right since they didn’t just decide to do it out of the blue.

The head of Xbox Live policy on this issue reacted to the controversy by posting this message on Twitter:

“Wow some of you think cheating a glitch is I install my car stereo wrong and it disables my door locks it’s not ok to STEAL MY CAR”

I must confess I am naturally put off this guy because of that “um” but regardless here the senior Microsoft employee whose policy banned everyone compares cheating at a video game to car theft. They’re different types of problem – ask any 5 year old. I know I don’t like car theft but it does nothing to help his case on banning cheaters.

The problem of the analogy for its user- I’ve discussed it from the perspective of listeners before – as the thing that persuades someone is that it needs to be a good one or it backfires and if it’s all you have your argument falls. Cheating in games can be annoying and it can spoil it for other people but it’s not like stealing a car. If someone asks you “did you just compare health reform to the Holocaust?” they’re not buying your argument.


Twitter as a legal blogging tool

Twitter is a microblogging system which is currently getting heavy media coverage. Microblogging is exactly what it sounds like – it’s small blog posts. Whereas you might need to sit down and fire up the word processor to write a blog post you should think nothing of firing off a quick status update if you’ve got a spare half minute. The integration with various other bits of modern computing is particularly impressive – I have a Twitter client built into my notification panel on my desktop and mobile Tweeting is highly polished. Twitter provides an API for anyone to hook their system with whatever front end program that they care to make and that’s very good and means we might see some very interesting applications which include it.

Twitter is great for status updates, and this is also something that it’s been criticised for – with the typical argument being why would people be interested in knowing what you’re doing all the time? It’s built around the SMS text message standard and that means that there’s a size limit on the messages – 140 characters. 140 characters is this much:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Ut at diam. Sed odio odio, aliquet ac, luctus ac, suscipit sit amet, sem. Nulla jus

How much content can you fit into that? Quite a lot actually but it’s quite hard at times and it’s very hard for legal discussion.

The 140 character limit

This is the biggest problem of Twitter while at the same time it leads to its biggest strength. It’s hard to say very much of anything in 140 characters and needs a marked change in style – phone users have adopted an entirely novel code of abbreviations to eke out as much room as possible in the same space but that’s not suitable, I think, for serious debate.  On the other hand we’re taught that conciseness is a virtue it’s a nice change to start thinking about your thoughts in smaller pieces but sometimes you just need that extra space to set out your thoughts, and particularly arguments. It’s hard to fit a balanced, reasoned argument into the space you’ve been given and, as an adult living in a complicated world, I’ve found very few issues come down to a straight uncontested yes and no. Lawyers might be paid to only fight one side but that naturally involves being able to see at least the two arguments in question (and then shoot the other one down, but the adversarial system’s another issue). Some knotty issues are extremely hard to express in a couple of sentences and that doesn’t mean that you’re not allowed to discuss these hard topics, just that Twitter isn’t the best medium for them.

What Twitter is fantastic for is simple fact reporting: [So and so] spotted in [such and such a place] doing [something], for example, or Govt to pass new law doing [something]. It’s short, it’s sharp and it doesn’t require any superfluous characters for opposing points of view. Opinion Tweets tend to need sharply edited just to fit into the space allowed. Twitter has been used to great effect to provide election observers with a forum to quickly get their updates out to a large group of people.

The problem of reporting quick, up to the minute facts has often been plagued by the lack of communications links – in fact, for a very long time the quickest way to get news communicated was to write a note and give it to a man with a horse, only recently replaced by running to the nearest phone. Twitter skips over any concept of having to go back to the office because it can be used anywhere. The biggest strength of Twitter is simply (and like many things that are simple to use that’s very complicated to actually make work) that it can be used from everywhere that gets mobile phone reception.

Mobile use

You can tweet from any mobile phone by using SMS or you can access the web site on newer phones. This means that you can use Twitter even where other modes aren’t possible – for example Stephen Fry, a hugely popular Twitter user was stuck in a lift for a few minutes and took the chance to keep up a running commentary of what was happening which he posted on Twitter. That sort of speed isn’t just useful in cases of comedians stuck in lifts, it’s good for matters of life and death. There was a case of a man lost on the mountain who was tracked down through his mobile which was itself tracked down by Twitter. Sadly that proved too late for the lost soul but it’s a far cry from only being able to email from a desktop computer stuck in an office which used to be how people accessed the online world.

Social networking

I’m not the biggest fan of social networking in its current form – I think the people who post every detail of their lives online for anyone to read are unwise and those posting every detail of their lives online for them to be sold to advertisers are being taken advantage of but I quite like the Twitter follower system. It’s less a friend list and more a whitelist for content – you only receive tweets that are written by people you actually want to see. There are options to communicate with users (eg using Direct Messages, @replies and so on) which are extremely useful for users who want to debate. I think the debate capabilities of 140 characters are again difficult to get used to but are very good for instant reply. It’s effectively a public chatroom where two people can talk and be watched by others. That harks back to the philosophers of ancient Athens. There’s no need to go away and write a thesis, you can simply send a quick tweet back from wherever you are. Does that improve the quality of debate? I’m not so sure. Firing off quick answers is no way to debate the laws of physics, for example, but it’s good for softer topics where strict fact checking isn’t as crucial.

The hashtag is a particularly interesting concept though which allows people to tag, just like I’ve tagged this blog post, tweets by topic.  For example, #pmq is intended to be used by people discussing Prime Minister’s Questions and particularly while it’s going on.  Rather than having to have added everyone who talks about Prime Minister’s Questions prior to them making their statement so I get it I can simply filter all tweets with this #pmq tag and read them.  This makes sense to me because it lets you focus on topic rather than users and I simply don’t know all users on Twitter and what they’ll post on but I do know about topics I want to discuss.


I’m not convinced by Twitter. I like it and I use it and I’m using it increasingly as a communications tool rather than a way of simply announcing new posts on the blog (although I still do that) but I think that there’s still advantages in being able to set out what you think in as many words as you need. Judges should never think about reporting back decisions over Twitter, for example. Twitter is good but still for a very particular purpose. It’s very good for pushing out facts to an increasingly mobile audience but it has natural constraints that make it difficult to debate that awareness you’ve raised.   It is a very good awareness raising tool for the lawyer but it is not itself a forum for academic debate.  As part of a lawyer’s online presence I think a healthy, interesting and popular Twitter feed can only be a good thing but it should not be overestimated and may only be of marginal help in attracting professional trade (the Twitter userbase is statistically still small) but not useless and provides a good platform for attracting traffic to a website – my figures have increased somewhat since using Twitter to announce blog posts.

Tagging is a concept that I find particularly interesting as a way of sparking topic centric debate, helping other users find debates they’re interested in and collecting news they’re interested in.  i think this, combined with mobile access, is the killer application of Twitter.

An example of a good legal Twitter feed is, as in most things online and legal, Joel Fights Back.  The students representing Joel provide regular Tweets which keep the campaign’s profile up and often provide hooks to interactive material on the project website.

Joel Fights Back

A file sharing notice is about the most serious letter that can come “from the Internet” for anyone. This can range between a polite “stop and delete all the songs you downloaded and don’t do it again” to a flat out demand for money. There have been a vast number of allegedly speculative letters sent out asking for a cash payment for the lawyers to go away with threats, and I think in context it is legally accurate to use the word, that the situation will escalate to court action (and faced with the option of having to prove a negative in front of a court an unknown number of people have simply paid up.

It is not all bad for the general public, since the vast majority of “law firms” who will mass mail requests for money are from England these can often be turned off by pointing out that you live in Scotland and there is a jurisdictional difference. A polite response asking for “clarification” on this “confusing point” can be all that an individual needs to do to make some of the less scrupulous firms give up and head for an easier target.

There can be no doubt that some of the letters do honestly arrive to people who illegally share files but the stories of university printers being threatened with legal action only serve to create an unfavourable blacklash in the press against the heavy handed tactics that have defined the public opinion of the industry. One of the biggest issues is the lack of actual, before a judge, court cases in this area because the vast majority of people settle before it goes that far. In the US there have been two main cases – Jammie Thomas which is now declared to be a mistrial and Joel Tenenbaum. In the first case the judge commented that the damages sought were probably 1000 times too much and has now been decided to be a miscarriage of justice but the second case is going much better for Joel. Jammie Thomas’s lawyer was inexperienced in this new area of law and the defence was not perhaps as persuasive as it could be. Joel instead is being defended by Professor Charles Nesson and a sizeable group of his students from Harvard Law School who is rather more experienced in this field and has brought a surprising amount of media attention to the case and has worked hard to capture the goodwill that surrounds people defending themselves against the RIAA.

The professor is clearly a canny lawyer and the Joel Fights Back campaign is a which uses nearly as much online content as Vote Obama ‘08 and has a Twitter feed, a Facebook page, an online petition and a Paypal fund raiser (the link’s to Joel’s own, I promise) along with some fantastic features – “Think like a Lawyer (Contribute to Joel’s Defence)”, “Legal Documents” and “Share your stories”. These are designed to get the general public interested in the case and to raise awareness of the issues involved. The move to make it quite interactive is a masterstroke – the suggestion that Joe Public can suggest questions to give to the big names in file sharing litigation under oath during cross examination is a unique opportunity and one which a lot of people have already expressed interest in.

The latest move Professor Nesson attempted was to have the court action broadcast online. I would highly recommend the opportunity to watch a civil case from a foreign jurisdiction, the US isn’t too different from our adversarial selves but that doesn’t mean that watching it’s not an opportunity that few Scottish students would be able to normally have. Broaden your legal experience when this is broadcast. Or will it, because the RIAA has immediately filed an appeal to have this case heard in camera. This is interesting because it gives a strong public impression that the RIAA don’t want their litigation procedure to be aired in public.

Joel himself is quite impressive – after receiving the initial demand for $3500 he rang the number on the letter and attempted to negotiate a settlement $500 instead, he even sent them a money order for that amount. A few years later he was sent summons and the scenario I have just mentioned began.

This case bears watching because it has ramifications on nearly all Internet users and is the first time the big law teams representing the anti file sharing lobby have really been answered by any party with at all similar resources. While there have been cases of the wicker man of file sharing used as a revenue gathering tactic by the unscrupulous there are issues, such as the punitive penalties the RIAA would like to see file sharers forced to pay, which need to be finally decided in open court.

Joe’s campaign site is at