Twitter: Ultimate Ally or Worst Enemy?

Deanna Morono

When she isn't playing video games or watching kung fu, Deanna writes. With a degree in journalism, she loves crafting stories and making mundane news bearable.

If what you Tweet could land you in jail, would you Tweet it?

‘This is America,’ you say with all the confidence in the world. ‘I have the right to Tweet my mind.’ Sure do. Nobody’s arguing that. And it’s hard to get in trouble for it.

What’s not going to save you, though, is fact. Information you share on Twitter that isn’t your opinion. Like your location at 11:22 a.m. on Oct. 1. Or what you’re doing. Like walking across a bridge. Or why you’re doing it. Like joining a movement.

The hard truth is, those kinds of seemingly innocent posts can come back to haunt you. They can be used as evidence against you, to prove you’ve broken the law. Frightening, eh?

It’s happening to at least one man right now. A New York State Supreme Court judge ordered Twitter to cough up account info for Occupy protestor Malcom Harris, who was arrested along with 700 others for marching on the Brooklyn Bridge last year. While Harris won’t face jail time, he could face a $250 fine.

The Twitter pic Malcom Harris uploaded of his subpoena from the New York County Criminal Court.

According to Reuters, prosecutors need his Tweets to “undermine Harris’ argument that police appeared to lead protesters onto the bridge’s roadway only to arrest them for obstructing traffic.”

The surprising twist is that Twitter fought back for Harris’ privacy, because they’re cool like that. Their defense sounded reasonable:

Twitter users own their Tweets and should have the right to fight invalid government requests. Public information which would allow law enforcement to draw mere inferences about a citizen’s thoughts and associations are entitled to Constitutional protection, thus establishing that a citizen’s substantive communications are certainly entitled to the same protection.

Basically, if assumptions don’t hold up in court, why should Tweets?

Well, Judge Matthew A. Sciarrino Jr. ignored Twitter’s appeal and gave them two options: pay a fine or hand over the Tweets.

I can’t put Twitter or the little blue bird in jail, so the only way to punish is monetarily.

What a time to be a fly on the wall during that meeting, huh? It’s not hard to guess what Twitter would do. Still, why go through the trouble of defending one of their billions of users in the first place?

Is Twitter trying to brand itself as the good guy?

Benjamin Lee is the Litigation and IP Lead at Twitter. So he knows his stuff.

Thousands of people have given the company kudos for backing the little guy. But don’t get too excited. Turns out, Twitter just updated their Terms of Use. Now it clearly states that we, the users, own our content. We’re responsible for our posts—and the consequences.

Burn. So much for playing the good guy. Twitter just threw us all under the bus.

Before this very public debacle, Twitter already gave user’s info away 75 percent of the time, per the government’s request. Now Malcom Harris is part of the 75 percent. Twitter handed over three months of his Tweets to law enforcement—a once-inch thick stack of papers.

It’s solely Harris’ fight now.

The law doesn’t know how to treat Twitter, at least in part because we don’t know all the ways to use it yet. 

In the end, how much are his Tweets going to change things? Sure, a Tweet is a public declaration. As real as if I shout it out my window. But then again, I can shout anything. Doesn’t make it true. Is the State of New York really wasting oodles of money on what Malcom Harris might have Tweeted?

In the grand scheme of things, it’s all a bit dramatic.

No matter the outcome for Harris, at least one thing is clear now: Twitter probably won’t be fighting for us anymore. Nope, we’re on our own. So be careful what you post.

Kind of makes you want to be a bit rebellious, doesn’t it? Excuse me while I go update my status to ‘Lookin’ at dead aliens with President Obama at Area 51.’

Oops, hope that doesn’t come back to bite me.