Breaking news: The web isn’t beyond the law

Rory Cellan-Jones
Technology correspondent
@BBCRoryCJon Twitter

Twitter logoImage source, PA

A week is a long time on the web, let alone in politics, as the saga of Twitter and the law goes to show.

Last Monday, as the name Ryan Giggs spilled out into the headlines the verdict from the British press and a clutch of web libertarians was clear.

The web had won, new online platforms like Twitter did not obey the same rules as the old media and it was pointless for courts, governments or regulators to try to intervene. But today things look a bit different.

It turns out that Twitter - like other big American web properties - may well be keen to brandish the US Constitution with its first amendment commitment to free speech. But it is also, as an American company, less than eager to defy an American court.

So when a court in California orders the firm to hand over the details of a British account holder in a defamation case, Twitter first informs him, then does as it is told.

As indeed would the likes of Google and Facebook, which receive thousands of demands for user data each year, from law enforcement agencies as well as the courts.

Policing the web

Now, you cannot read through from that incident to the case in which lawyers for Ryan Giggs are trying to obtain details of other Twitter accounts.

They are attempting to apply an English legal device called a Norwich Pharmacal order to an American firm and that is going to be very tricky.

But what we have learned over the 20 years that we've had the web is that while some parts of it are lawless, others are not.

So, for instance, trying to enforce copyright law on file-sharing sites is going to be tricky, as is tracking down malicious hackers based in Russia.

But as web firms grow up and become respectable, they find that they have little choice but to obey the same laws as those fusty old media businesses.

Take YouTube for instance. As a feisty start-up, it could afford to be blase about copyright infringement, as users started to upload all sorts of material they didn't own.

But once it was owned by Google, it had to start to behave like other media firms, taking down anything that might lead to a lawsuit.

As for free speech online, anyone who believed the web was ever a place you could speak your mind without fear of a libel suit does not know their history.

A quick web search turned up this article from 2000, when Demon Internet had to pay out a hefty sum to a man who had allegedly been defamed on newsgroups it hosted. (By the way, have a look at the left of the page to see a reporter who has been on this beat for too long.)

So, over the last week, I think we've discovered that the picture, when it comes to this battle between the courts and the web, between free speech and privacy, is a little more nuanced than it first appeared.

Sure, all sorts of information, true and false, can whizz around the internet at the speed of light.

But that information will prove more powerful when it appears in a place which most people trust - whether that is a newspaper like the Times, a broadcaster like the BBC or even the Facebook or Twitter account of a friend.

And all of those news sources - old and new - are finding that 20th Century laws still apply in a web world.