For the first time, a UK court delivered an injunction over Twitter on Thursday, a ground-breaking embrace of technology by a traditionally slow-moving legal system.
The injunction orders an anonymous person to stop impersonating Donal Blaney, a prominent right-wing blogger and owner of the Griffin Law firm based in Hawkhurst, England.
The impersonator had set up a Twitter account that used Blaney's photo from his blog, linked to his blog posts and tweeted with the same style and tone of writing. While parody could be a defence, in this case "it was clearly designed to encourage people to think it was truly me," Blaney said.
Blaney's attorney went to the UK's High Court in London on Thursday morning. The injunction was delivered by Twitter's direct message feature to the impersonator, so it is not public. The tweet contained a link to the injunction, which orders the person to reveal their identity and stop impersonating Blaney on Twitter.
The judge, who was familiar with Twitter, also knew of a case in Australia where court proceedings were delivered over Facebook, Blaney said.
The delivery of an injunction over Twitter is innovative and "will make it harder for people who are abusing the Internet and abusing the cowardly cloak of anonymity to harass and bully people," Blaney said.
If the impersonator doesn't get in touch with the court, Blaney has a couple of options, although identification of the person could be difficult. He could get a penal notice from the court, which would warn that the impersonator could be held in contempt of court for not coming forward.
However, penal notices must be served in person, Blaney said, and it's unlikely a judge would allow one to be delivered over Twitter.
Another option would be to file separate proceedings against Twitter in California to reveal the IP (Internet Protocol) address of the computer that posted the tweets. Then, it would be possible to ask the ISP (Internet service provider) to reveal the subscriber's identity or location of the computer. That is a "slow and expensive process," Blaney said.
The impersonator's account was still active as of Friday morning, he said.
Blaney went directly to the court instead of immediately contacting Twitter because the service can take a week to remove a fraudulent account, said he, based on his experience with one of his clients. He sent an e-mail to Twitter this morning asking for the account to be removed.
Part of his frustration stems from the fact that Twitter has no public phone line to report complaints, and users who feel there is inappropriate contact must just send an email, Blaney said.
"It is unacceptable that a site as powerful as Twitter is behaving in the same manner as an ISP a decade ago," Blaney said.
Because of increasing abuse by spammers, phishers and other scams, ISPs have generally improved their response times now when alerted to problems on their networks. Social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook, which grew very rapidly, have also made efforts to improve their reaction times.
Twitter could not be immediately reached.