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Twitter Posts Are Not Private: What are the Implications?

Posted by Brian Kelly on 9 Feb 2011

The article published on the BBC News Web site yesterday seemed unambiguous: “‘Twitter messages not private’ rules PCC“.  This news item summarised news published by the PCC, the Press Complaints Commission, which ruled that “Material that is published on Twitter should be considered public and can be published“. The context was a complaint by a Department of Transport official that the use of her tweets by newspapers constituted an invasion of privacy – apparently the official, who was named in the article, had tweeted about “being hungover at work“. But even though she had a clear disclaimer that the views expressed by her on Twitter were personal, her tweets were published in the press. An article in The Guardian provides further information – it seems that the Daily Mail and the Independent on Sunday) published this information.  I must admit that I find it unsurprising that the Daily Mail has used this as an opportunity to have a dig at the public sector. But what are the implications of this ruling for the rest of us? Some thoughts:

  • It’s pointless saying one’s (public) tweets are personal if you tweet in a professional capacity. The press can publish such information and use this as an opportunity to have a go at you and your host institution.  This is the standard type of advice which is given to students using social media, but perhaps we forget to think about the implications for ourselves.  Twitterer emptor Caveat Twitterer! – as perhaps the various footballers and cricketers who have been fined for tweeting inappropriate remarks would echo.
  • This news does seem to validate reuse of tweets. Martin Hawksey, who developed the iTitle Twitter captioning service will no doubt be relieved that it seems he does not need to obtain permission before reusing public tweets as will developers of Twitter archiving services (and note that in the JISC-funded developments to the Twapper Keeper Twitter archiving service for which UKOLN provided the project management we did identify that privacy concerns did need to be considered).
  • However it should be pointed out that this ruling came from the PCC – it is not a legal ruling.

Good news which seems to validate reuse of tweets or a dangerous intrusion into personal space? What do you think? Should all organisation be providing guidelines not only on institutional use of social media but personal use, such as EDINA’s guidelines which were published recently (with a Creative Commons licence) which states:

EDINA, as part of the University of Edinburgh, is your employer and as such you have a legal and moral responsibility not to bring either organisation into disrepute. Maintaining the reputation of EDINA, EDINA projects, services and staff members plays a crucial part in ensuring the continuing success of the organisation. Comments, particularly those with a strongly negative or unprofessional tone, can have serious unintended consequences. It is therefore important to remember that what you say about your work, even in personal social media presences, can reflect upon EDINA.

Please exercise common sense over whether or not the space you are posting to (whether your own or as a guest post on another person or organisation’s blog or social media presence) is an appropriate space for discussion of work or work related matters. If in doubt, you can always ask your line manager for advice.

The Hounding of the Baskerville article in the Independent on Sunday is worth reading to provide a context to such discussions.

17 Responses to “Twitter Posts Are Not Private: What are the Implications?”

  1. Hi Brian,

    This was a thoughtful post. We tend to forget that social media is hosted on a private commercial platform by companies such as Facebook, Twitter and FourSquare. It’s a strange conundrum: we post private material on a commercial space which is now looked upon as a repository of public discourse.

    I wonder if we will have a public social network space online – just like we have public squares and walk-ways in real life – and then, there would be no ambiguity as information posted there would be open for all to use, reuse and archive.



  2. Chris Wallace said

    Perhaps “Caveat Twitterer” ?

  3. Rachel Beckett (@LilliputTales) said

    How does this ruling affect people like myself who publish short fiction on Twitter? The Copyright, Designs and Patents Act gives me copyright over my own original work. Surely this applies to Twitter too? I had assumed that people re-using my tweets were supposed to acknowledge them?

    • I agree that this is a complex matter. I suspect that if someone does reuse your Twitter short fiction without your permission you will have to chase them for copyright infringement. You may have to make a case for the financial loss such reuse could incur (which could be damage to your reputation). As I pointed out in my post the ruling only pertains to publication of tweets by newspaper and has no legal status – although I should add that IANAL (I Am Not A Lawyer)!

    • Rachel,

      I attended the excellent Gikii ( conference on law and tech last year where there was significant discussion on Twitter and copyright and a very useful talk from Dinusha Mendis on this topic.

      If I recall correctly the suggestion there was that an individual tweet might be copyrightable but that it is the short length more than the public nature of the tweet that provides particular ambiguity. Poetry – for which there is an existing precedent for copyrighting short works may be better protected than prose in this ultra short form. There was also a feeling stream of tweets forming a larger work may be more copyrightable as it is easier to show that there is uniqueness and a significant amount of effort and skill involved in the creation and curation of that collection of materials as opposed to the effort of creating an individual tweet.

      The Twitter T&C used to specify that your tweets are your own for purposes of copyright and usage. Post September 2009 terms indicate that you give Twitter a worldwide non exclusive license to publish your tweets but that you retain liability for them (an interesting element in the PCC case and in a previous ruling by the NBA in response to tweets about the referring of a game by the owner of one of the teams, the Dallas Mavericks). I think the main reason for this change is Twitter’s move towards finding revenue streams via curated streams for TV and other media outlets but it may have other consequences. There is also an interesting challenge that copyright laws often relate to format/type of information (e.g. a play versus a newspaper article versus a news update versus a poem versus a listing of an event etc.) and Twitter can include any combination of materials.

      There are even trickier issues around conference/event/news tweets on a hashtag or other co-created works – I think it would be tricky to argue the ownership of any single tweet and to suggest that these are not intended to be public and at least shared, republished and reused by others with an interest in that hashtag (and as Brian indicates above the PCC case shows a positive understanding of republication of tweets in these sorts of contexts).

      Unfortunately I don’t think there were any more specific conclusions – there have not been enough legal cases in this area yet I think – but I hope the above is helpful. I would think that short fiction would meet the unique and skilled effort criteria that form an important part of UK copyright law but as with any third party software (as Nilofar points out above) it’s always worth double checking the terms and conditions whenever they change as that can make all the difference.

      – Nicola Osborne, EDINA Social Media Officer.

  4. It’s a non-event isn’t it?

    If you tweet in public, you tweet in public – end of.

    If you publicly bring your employer into disrepute, someone’s going to get upset about it. If you are in public office and you act in a way that many/most of the public would find unacceptable, someone’s going to get upset.

    What’s the news here?

    (Note, private DMs and/or closed tweets are a different matter).

    • For many experienced Twitter users, like you and I, this probably is a non-event. As you say “If you tweet in public, you tweet in public – end of“. However I suspect others will have different views – indeed Twitter users you and I both know have stated that public tweets are “of the moment” and shouldn’t be reused. It’s also worth remembering danah boyd’s comment that “just because something is publicly accessible doesn't mean that it should be publicized.”

      For me the news is that this is sending signals that tweets can be reused. It’s endorsing the view that you and I may hold but which others may disagree with.

      • Ah, a great moment for the classic danah boyd quote ;)

        An additional thought re: privacy: DMs and private tweets are fairly public being accessible to any approved 3rd party app via the API – how private they are in practice depends significantly on careful authentication of apps and full understanding of how those apps access, use and store your DMs. I think – as with Facebook privacy issues that have arisen – socially that division of public and private is much more clear cut than it is technologically.

      • I don’t disagree particularly with the DB quote but it seems to me that there’s an expectation mis-match here. You can say “this should not be publicised because I intended it only for my followers” until you are blue in the face… but doing so doesn’t change the fact that it is public material.

        It’s a bit like going into a pub and shouting at the top of your voice, then getting upset that people outside of the group of people you are actually talking to can overhear what you are saying (and may, in some cases, react to it).

        If you want privacy, it is up to you to behave in ways that help ensure it – not rely on others to self-censor on your behalf.

        I accept that there may be a case that the average ‘man/woman in the street’ Twitter user isn’t aware of how public his/her tweets are – especially given that dedicated clients are the predominant access mode (rather than the web interface). I seem to recall that both my partner and my daughter were surprised when I told them that she (my partner) could simply read all my daughter’s tweets by creating a bookmark to my daughter’s page on the Twitter website.

      • Douglas Campbell said

        It comes down to ignorance. And we all know, in the eyes of the law, ignorance is no excuse. :(

        The Web has become recognised as a public space (and that is even explicitly stated in some countries’ copyright legislation). But, as Andy points out, it is all so new and constantly changing that it is easy to see how many people get confused. You can (mostly) restrict who your friends are and what they see in Facebook, but that doesn’t translate to how Twitter following works.

        Even Webheads don’t understand it all. The National Library of New Zealand had complaints from webmasters when they did an all-of-domain web harvest. Many complained that pages covered by a ‘disallow’ statement in their robots.txt file are ‘private’. But they aren’t private – their website provides links to these pages, so they are viewable by any member of the public (the robots config just says please don’t hit these pages hard with a bot).

        Copyright and corporate behaviour are separate things. Though they partly flow on from the above ignorance…

        Copyright – just because a work (some text) is in the public arena doesn’t mean it isn’t covered by copyright. I imagine copyright case law would find a tweet to be sufficient as an original work to be protected (just like four notes in a piece of music could be), but IANAL.

        Corporate – people should be careful about what they say about their workplace when they are at the pub, Twitter is no different (but if you don’t realise the whole world is listening, the result can be a whole lot worse).

        I kind of can’t believe I’m saying this, but the concepts behind things like ‘private property as public spaces’, copyright, defamation, etc. still hold up and apply in the online world, it’s just people don’t have a point of reference that they are used to, so they mistake the environment they are operating in.

        On the DM question, even though it’s in the API, I don’t really think it is ‘public’ data. Twitter represents DM as a private communication channel – the user agreed to use that channel on the understanding it is private. (While a public tweet may also have been ‘intended’ as private, unfortunately that is a misunderstanding of their choice of communication channel.) So an API developer revealing a tweet that was clearly specified as private (DM) would seem to be some sort of a usage breach (would need to check the Twitter API ToU).

        Though, in this new WikiLeaks era, maybe that’s all OK??

  5. PeteJ said

    A couple of quick points:

    First, I think it’s important to remember that public/private and organisational/personal are different axes.

    After all, it’s quite common to give a (public) presentation where you combine, say, points which might be organisational policy with some of your own opinions, while qualifying the latter as such (“That point is just my personal opinion”, “I can’t answer for organisation X but my own view is that…”), or maybe to throw in some personal anecdote to illustrate a point. Though, yes, you would be wise to remain aware of the context and choose your personal anecdote carefully :)

    Second, re your suggestion that this amounts to carte blanche for (any?) “reuse” of “public” posts, I think there’s a difference between recognising that something is “public” and saying “So I can do whatever I want with it”.

    I think it’s worth bearing in mind the principle: “Just because you can, that doesn’t mean you should”. And even if newspapers “do”, it doesn’t necessarily follow that “we” should: the tabloid press engage in all sorts of behaviour which is legal but which (I hope!) we would baulk at. There are issues of etiquette, expectation and power relationships in play here as well as simple technical and regulatory ones.

    • Thanks for the comment. I agree that there are public/private and organisational/personal axes to consider.

      In addition there are the differences between what how an ethical Twitter user may reuse someone else’s public tweets and the approaches which organisations and individuals with axes to grind may use. My recommendation is that one should not cite or retweet a personal Twiter post if you feel the author may be embarrassed or feel aggrieved by such action. Newspapers, however, will probably take a different view.

  6. I like the way you keep pushing me forward as some sort of twitter copyright martyr (See Issues In Crowd-sourced Twitter Captioning of Videos, but despite your efforts no one has come chasing after me just yet ;)

    Thanks to a tweet from Steve Bentley as a 3rd party Twitter developer I can take some comfort having read this excerpt from the Twitter Terms and Conditions:

    You agree that this license includes the right for Twitter to make such Content available to other companies, organizations or individuals who partner with Twitter for the syndication, broadcast, distribution or publication of such Content on other media and services, subject to our terms and conditions for such Content use.

    Tip Twitter has an evolving set of rules for how API developers can interact with your content. These rules exist to enable an open ecosystem with your rights in mind.

    • Don’t think you’re a martyr! Rather I think you are a developer who has assessed possible risks related to development work and made a decision that the risks are small and worth taking. The Twitter Terms and Conditions now appear to validate your approach.

      Remember that you are simply following in the footsteps of Web cache administrators who installed caches in the early 1990s despite the uncertainty as to whether such services would infringe copyright (e.g. Nana Mouskouri MEP attempted to introduced legislation which would, I believe, have made caches subject to copyright legislation). Let’s raise our glasses to those forgotten heroes!

  7. Steve Hitchcock said

    A common complaint about media coverage is to be ‘quoted out of context’. What is the context here: the tweet, or by extension the individual’s twitterstream, or even the @replies or #tag links? Sometimes tweets stand alone; sometimes they are used to tell stories. You can see how the @replies might be connected to make a story, even though the two things are strictly disconnected, authorially-speaking. I don’t know if some of the examples presented to the PCC reflect such cases, but I’m sure some will follow in the wake of this ruling.

    On the copyright issue raised by Rachel, as a storyteller on Twitter, as you say this is not a legal judgement, so standard copyright rules should apply unless there is a statement (provided by Twitter, say) to the contrary and to which all users are bound. But the same questions as above apply, what is the object of the rule, the tweet or the story?

  8. I think it’s kind of already been said but it is important to separate the general point of using public material and the specific case. If you tweet about being hungover at work and it is inferred that this affects your ability to do your job, well that perhaps seems fair. However, let’s change the context of the tweet. I tweet about my son’s issues with autism. Suppose a paper picked up on this and suggested that I was incapable of doing my job because of the demands of caring for him I’d hope the pcc would rule in my favour rather than just say ‘tweets are public, tough’. Context and inference drawn from a tweet are more the issue here than public / private debates IMHO.

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