Council bosses in South Tyneside have won a legal battle forcing Twitter to hand over the personal details of accounts allegedly used by a councillor to make damaging claims again its staff.
The local authority took the micro-blogging site to court in California after three other councillors and an official complained of being libelled in a blog called ‘Mr Monkey’. Independent South Shields councillor Ahmed Kahn has denied being the author of the blog, which has issued a stream of criticism and made a series of allegations against the four.
But in what is believed to be the first time that Twitter has been forced to provide information about UK users, the Superior Court of California has now ordered it to hand over the details of five accounts.
A spokesman for South Tyneside Council told the Shields Gazette: “I can confirm Twitter has released information to our lawyers, and that this is being analysed by technical experts.”
In response to criticism over the legal costs of the case, he added that, while no precise figures could currently be given as the case was ongoing, fees were “less than £75,000”.
“The action was initiated by the council’s previous chief executive, and had continued with the full support of the council’s current chief executive. The council has a duty of care to protect its employees and, as this blog contains damaging claims about council officers, the legal action was taken to identify those responsible,” the spokesman said.
Councillor Kahn indicated that Twitter had sent him an email informing him of its actions to hand over tweets, which included personal messages, that he had posted from the site.
“This is Orwellian. It’s like something out of 1984. If a council can take this kind of action against one of its own councillors simply because they don’t like what I say, what hope is there for freedom of speech or privacy?” Kahn said.
The first he had heard about the situation was when Twitter contacted him to let him know about it. He was given 14 days to defend his case and was expected to fly to California and hire a lawyer, all at his own expense, Kahn said.
The scenario not only breached his human rights but potentially those of a number of whistle-blowers who had sent him private messages “exposing wrongdoing in the council and the authority knows this”, he added.
The Mr Monkey blog made a series of accusations against the council’s Labour leader Iain Malcolm; councillor David Potts, the former Conservative leader who is now independent; Labour councillor Anne Walsh and Rick O’Farrell, the local authority’s head of enterprise and regeneration.
Potts said: “We are public figures and expected to take flak, but this is a hate campaign. A lot of what has been posted is utter filth. I’ve been accused of being a drug addict. I’m a well-known businessman and if someone ran a hate campaign against one of my employees, I would do everything in my power to track down those responsible.”