How Twitter is Causing changes in Media Law

Twitter rocked the boat recently when it announced that it would let world leaders decide what people inside their countries could see and say on Twitter. The announcement cheered the likes of Raul Castro, Hugo Chavez, Barack Obama, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and other control-freaks who don’t like criticism.

Although the move by Twitter was drastic, it is changing media law in many other ways.

• Are Tweets Fact or Fiction?

In a famous Twitter case, Courtney Love called someone a drug-addicted whore who lost a baby and got sued over it for defamation. Many Twitter users had thought they merely expressed opinions on the microblogging site, not facts.

Another problem with civil suits over tweets involves determining damages. A person with just a few followers should not be penalized as much for saying something non-nice as a person with millions of followers, right?

The Courtney Love case was settled out of court and a judge tossed a defamation case against a tweeter after he described tweets as hyperbole.

As the debate rages, Twitter users may want to keep a cool tongue until courts finally sort out the issues involved.

• Are Tweets and Tweet-ees Personal Property?

A man who was blogging for an outfit called Phone Dog got fired took his thousands of Twitter followers with him when he left the company. Phone Dog says he stole company property. The blogger says the followers were his.

In court, Phone Dog says it wants $2.50 for every follower the blogger ran off with. The case is bogged down in formalities right now, but the issue has stoked concern around the Internet. When someone follows a person, do they follow the person as an employee or as a private individual? Media law will not be complete until issues like this one are addressed.

• Are Tweets Part of Free Speech?

Aside from Twitter’s decision to stifle free speech on a global basis, some wonder whether tweets (the ones permitted by Twitter and world leaders) are protected forms of speech. Mashable refers to a New York Times report of a cyberstalker who used Twitter to say bad things about a Buddhist public figure. A judge threw out cyberstalking charges saying that what the man did was addressing religious matters and is therefore protected under the First Amendment.

• Are Tweets a National Security Threat?

The U.S. Government does a lot under the auspices of national security, but should it be allowed to seize records at will, as it demanded in the famous WikiLeaks case? Twitter fought for the right to tell its users when the government tries to seize their records.

• Is Twitter Responsible for Fake Accounts?

Baseball manager Tony La Russa sued Twitter over tweets that talked about his arrest and some other distasteful subjects. The question at hand is whether people being tweeted against can sue Twitter for the damage done to their trademarks. Although the courts have not had a chance to decide a case like this (La Russa canceled his lawsuit), questions about how to address damage done to reputations and trademarks continue to linger.