Comment Infamous online cesspit Twitter may have unintentionally made itself easier to sue for the things users write on its site, following recently announced changes to its "blue tick" verification system.
Earlier this month Twitter staff used the service's Twitter Support account to declare that its controversial blue tick will now effectively be used as an endorsement of that user's posts.
Previously the blue tick, which is applied to particular usernames on the site, was intended to be an authentication mark: people reading tweets from a verified account in the name of a celebrity could be certain that posts were definitely from that celeb and not an imposter or satirist.
Over time, people (incorrectly) began to associate this identity verification with an endorsement by Twitter staff of what blue-ticked users posted.
Following repeated online outcries over the last few years after holders of blue tick marks posted outrageous and unpleasant things, ranging from posts that some regarded as politically objectionable to outright racist statements, incitements to violence and doxing, Twitter has now changed its policy on blue ticks. The company will withdraw blue ticks from people whose views it disapproves of; in effect, formally embracing the public view that it endorses the views of people to whom it dishes out blue ticks.
The endorsement part of this comes about through the wording of Twitter's "reasons why we might withdraw a blue tick", as drawn in part from the link above:
Promoting hate and/or violence against, or directly attacking or threatening other people on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability, or disease. Supporting organizations or individuals that promote the above.
In short: if you have a blue tick on your account, Twitter's staff agree with what you say. If you have a blue tick withdrawn, Twitter staff no longer approve of what you say and have edited your account to remove their endorsement. The blue tick is no longer a mere "this person is definitely who they claim to be" verification of identity. Put another way, Twitter staff are using the tick as an editorial seal of approval.
Delving into the legalese
All of this engages English defamation law. The Defamation Act 1996 makes the "author, editor or publisher" of a defamatory statement liable to be sued for it. The defence of "innocent dissemination" can also be found in the 1996 Act; it exempted printing companies from being sued and also applies to social media platforms and operators of internet forums, among others.
The Defamation (Operators of Websites) Regulations 2013 amended that slightly (as explained by UK.gov, PDF, 9 pages) by stating that the innocent dissemination defence continues to apply to website operators if they moderate (i.e. edit) posts on their sites. Prior to that, operators were worried that they opened themselves up to being sued by editing out objectionable statements from their users' posts.
Now, read those parts above carefully. After the 2013 regulations became law, website operators did not get blanket immunity from being sued if they edit others' posts. A rebuttable presumption exists that they have a defence for editing users' comments; no more than that.
If you take the view that, by withdrawing blue tick marks from users who support those who say and do unpleasant things, Twitter is exercising an editorial judgement about that user's posts, you can see how all of the above law applies. Twitter's defence against being held liable for what its users post is no longer as cast-iron as it used to be.
Do we know for sure that Twitter's opened the sueball floodgates by officially confirming that blue ticks are now an endorsement? Bluntly, we don't. The only way to know for sure is if someone brings a test case against Twitter. The presumption of a defence can still be upheld in court – all that's happened so far is Twitter has lowered the barrier for it to be sued, ever so slightly. Small changes can have big consequences later down the line.
Of course, Twitter still has the full defence for website operators, which amounts to doxing users in order to stave off liability (if you've ever wondered why Twitter now demands an email address and phone number for new signups, that's why). But, in light of Home Secretary Amber Rudd's oft-expressed desire to gain leverage over social media websites and bend them to the will of the British government, it is a foolish website operator who lets a chink show in their legal armour. ®