Council sued for unmasking Twitter user


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The Independent Online

The first Briton to have his Twitter identity forcibly revealed by a court is seeking to sue the council that blew his anonymity and force a judicial review of the case.

A review could have implications for whistleblowing websites – and for a council that used public funds to unmask a perceived detractor.

In April, South Tyneside Council won an order from the Superior Court of California forcing Twitter, which is based in the state, to release details about four accounts. The council claimed the information – including contact details and computer addresses – could reveal who is behind the Mr Monkey blog, which it claimed was spreading libellous comments.

South Tyneside Councillor Ahmed Khan admits being the owner of one of the Twitter accounts, but maintains he is not "Mr Monkey".

Mr Khan, an independent councillor, claims he has broken a number of stories about the council, including details behind a controversial deal over the refinancing of Newcastle Airport. He claims that since his anonymity was compromised people are reluctant to come to him with stories.

"I have had to go around telling people it [Mr Monkey] was not me. One woman came to me about one matter but she asked for reassurance that her details would not be revealed," he said.

South Tyneside Council has already spent about £75,000 on the case. Mr Khan is looking into the possibility of forcing a legal review into the misuse of public funds.

Mr Khan, who will stand for re-election to the council next year, said: "I have spoken to solicitors about taking this to [judicial] review to make the council stop spending any more public money on this. It is a total waste of funds at a time of huge cuts." The Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles, said he was "not entirely comfortable" with the council. He told the BBC: "I'm not sure [going to court in the US] was the wisest thing to do."

The Mr Monkey blog made a number of accusations against several council leaders, who were named on papers delivered by the council's lawyers to the Superior Court of California, which, Mr Khan claimed, could make them (the council or the councillors) liable for any defamation claim.

The council has always claimed it has a duty of care to protect officers and councillors but said it could not comment on defamation claims.

Media lawyer Mark Stephens, who represented WikiLeaks' founder Julian Assange when the US Government tried to obtain his Twitter details, said the case could be costly: "If Mr Monkey doesn't have any assets, the council will foot the bill of any trial. If a trial goes ahead the council is paying £300,000 to £400,000, that's £100,000 per head."

Mr Khan is waiting for a court decision before taking further legal action.