Ivy Tsui is a JD candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School.
Sarah Baskerville, an administration manager at the Department of Transport in London and an active user on Twitter, posted a series of “tweets” criticizing government policies, being hungover at work, and saying that the leader of a government training course was “mental”. In the UK, a civil servant has a fiduciary duty to be politically impartial under the Civil Service Code.
Two newspapers, including the Daily Mail and The Independent on Sunday, re-published her Twitter messages and wrote articles about her excessive participation in social networking websites. Ms. Baskerville complained to the PCC, claiming that the information was private and she had a “reasonable expectation” that her messages would be published only to her 700 or so followers. The two adjudicated complaints can be read here and here.
In the ruling, the Commission took into consideration the fact that Baskerville’s tweets were publicly accessible on the web. This is especially important for Twitter, since any post can be re-tweeted to a wider audience without the author’s consent. The decision also took into account the Civil Service Code in the UK, which sets out that public servant should always maintain political impartiality and should never allow your personal political views to determine the advice you give. Thus, in this case, freedom of the press trumps personal privacy.
“This is an important ruling by the commission. As more and more people make use of such social media to publish material related to their lives, the commission is increasingly being asked to make judgments about what can legitimately be described as private information,” said PCC director Stephen Abell.
An interesting aspect of this case relates to copyright protection. Had Ms. Baskerville pursued a copyright claim over her Twitter messages, the two newspapers might have been barred from re-publishing her “tweets”. According to the terms of service on Twitter, it clearly states that users own all the rights to the contents that they posted on Twitter. Copyright law protects passages or pictures on the Internet. However, the 140-character limit to a Tweet might severely curtail creativity and fail the originality requirement for copyright protection. Thus, in my opinion, tweets are most likely to be deemed un-copyrightable. At the rate Twitter-related issues are appearing before bodies like the PCC, it would not be a surprise if the copyright issue was also one day dealt with by a court or other authority.