Unprotected Twitter posts fair game for journalists

Publicly accessible posts you make on Twitter are not private. As obvious as that might be, one British woman needed a formal adjudication to get that point across.

Sarah Baskerville, a government department employee, had made several posts on Twitter mentioning the fact that she had been hungover while at work, as well as making personal comments about people she had worked with. Two national newspapers reprinted these comments in articles about the views and behavior of public officials.

Whether such comments really count as news is debatable, but isn’t relevant to the legal situation. Instead, Baskerville claimed that it was a breach of privacy to reproduce the comments without permission. She complained to the Press Complaints Commission, which is the self-regulatory body for British newspapers.

According to the commission, Baskerville made two main points: that it was reasonable to expect the message would only be seen by the 700 followers on her account; and that her account was clearly labeled as a personal view that did not reflect her employers.

The newspapers responded by highlighting that, at the time they used the material, Baskerville’s account was not set to private and could be viewed by anybody online. (At the time of writing, that was still the case, although the account appears to be used exclusively for retweeting other posters.)

The commission has now ruled to reject the complaints. It said that not only could anyone have stumbled across the information, but the retweet feature of Twitter meant there was a strong possibility it would be seen by people other than Baskerville’s followers.

One notable point about the case is that the two newspapers stressed that Baskerville had openly used her own name rather than posting anonymously. That raises the question of whether the PCC would come to the same verdict were a newspaper to “expose” the person behind a Twitter account without permission.

Aside from the privacy issue, theoretically British law could be interpreted as meaning that reprinting the Twitter posts was a breach of copyright (a point Baskerville hasn’t pursued legally.) However a fair use clause allows limited quoting for reporting purposes, and it seems highly likely that in a message of no more than 140 characters, quoting a tweet in its entirety would be considered legitimate.

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