As a result, it’s a platform the law is paying increasing attention to. So here, for your convenience, is a quick guide concerning the legal implications of the things you might tweet.
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Tweeters who make defamatory allegations can be sued for libel. Defamatory allegations are false statements which can damage the reputation of someone else and expose them to “hatred, ridicule or contempt”.
If tweets (including re-tweets) damage a person’s standing in “the estimation of right-thinking members of society” then it is considered libel. You can’t be jailed for libel since it’s a civil offense, but you could face high fines.
Impersonation and Fraud
A person who suffers loss or damage as a result of impersonation on Twitter is protected under the Fraud Act of 2006. If the impersonated takes their case to court, it’s considered a criminal offense which could leave the impersonator with large fines and a prison sentence of up to 10 years.
Even though impersonation is a serious criminal offense, there are a large number of fake accounts on Twitter, often impersonating celebrities.
Tweeting Copyrighted Material
In the past UK law only paid attention to copyright infringement claims if the offender was reproducing substantial parts of the copyrighted material. But a recent decision by the European Court of Justice deemed that infringement claims can now be based on the reproduction of just one isolated sentence from a copyrighted work.
So if you’re tweeting favorite lyrics or memorable quotes from books, then theoretically you could be breaking copyright law, a law which could send you to prison for up to two years.
Threatening and Intimidating Tweets
Threatening behavior is another common sighting on Twitter. Such behavior can be considered assault if the recipient believes that physical harm is imminent.
Tweets that intimidate are also considered criminal offenses if they go beyond “idle abuse”. This can happen when the offending tweet induces the recipient into acts which cause them loss or damage. Intimidating tweets can result in claims for compensation.
Mixing Brand Names with Hashtags
Hashtags, which link tweets to trending topics, is another area with surprising legal implications. In UK law, it is generally acceptable to reproduce trademarks as long as it doesn’t misrepresent the company concerned.
However, mixing hashtags of trademarks with hashtags of words that could be damaging to the character of the trademark, could be considered an act of misrepresentation and thus a trademark infringement.
Offensive and Indecent Tweets
Tweets can be considered offenses of the Communications Act of 2003 if their content is offensive and indecent enough to create fear or apprehension in the minds of those who could be expected to see it.
In May 2010, Paul Chambers was found guilty of this when he tweeted that he would blow up Robin Hood airport “sky high” if it didn’t reopen within a week, a closure which was due to snow. This conviction was later overturned on appeal but nevertheless demonstrates the law’s increasing role in the Twitter-sphere.
Finally, the publication of words that cause “alarm” or “distress” to whomever the words are targeted can be considered harassment if it happens more than once.
In the land of Twitter, two tweets which cause “alarm” or “distress” is enough to be considered harassment. Under the Harassment Act of 1997, this could result in fines based on the psychological or financial loss of the harassed, and a prison sentence of up to six months.
Tweetering Into the Future
This article has shown that UK law already covers many of the imaginable wrongdoings on Twitter. Although criminal charges are still small in number (653 in 2012 for Twitter and Facebook comments) they will only continue to grow as these communication tools assimilate under the authority of the law.
The lesson to take away from all of this is an understanding that the digital world is as human as the physical world. Actions in one have consequences in the other and the separation between the two is not nearly as wide as many of us continue to believe – staying on the right side of the law is vital online and offline alike.
This article is brought to you by Jonathan, a blogger, and LLM law student, currently studying for his masters in law degree in London.