Twitter spoof account legal action dropped by Northcliffe

Screenshot of NotSteveDorkland Twitter account The account holder said he hoped his supporters would "smile" after the decision

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A UK newspaper group has withdrawn its legal action over a Twitter account spoofing its chief executive.

Northcliffe Media, owned by the Daily Mail, filed a subpoena in the US to have the identity of '@UnSteveDorkland' revealed.

But the account holder successfully challenged the order and the media group has subsequently backed down.

The still-anonymous tweeter described the case on Friday as "shameful and unnecessary".

"By withdrawing the case against me they have, finally, recognised the futility of their heavy-handed approach and the entirely baseless nature of all the accusations they threw at me in a vainglorious attempt to divert attention from the real issue, namely their idea that by throwing money and bullying tactics at someone you can throttle freedom of speech," he said in an emailed statement.

"They underestimated me, they underestimated my lawyer Frank Sommers and they underestimated the power of the worldwide internet community."

In a statement, a Northcliffe spokesperson said the case was not about freedom of speech but about a barrage of messages that amounted to "cyber-bullying and harassment".

It said the number of tweets sent through the anonymous account, 700 in four weeks, indicated a "disturbing obsession".

"His or her intention may initially have been humorous, but these tweets went far beyond commentary and satire, causing pain and offence," said the spokesperson. "We encourage humour in our business, but no workplace should be expected to tolerate an unrelenting flow of derogatory and degrading comments of questionable legality."

"Free speech is the lifeblood of our newspapers and websites," said the media group. "Here, in weighing the rights of an anonymous writer against the rights of staff singled out by name, we believed it was reasonable to ask Twitter to supply the identity of the person making these comments."

'Hacking'

The unidentified man, understood to have at some point had close ties to the company, had been spoofing Northcliffe's chief executive Steve Auckland.

Northcliffe, which publishes 84 of the UK's regional newspapers, had said the tweets had made staff "fear for their safety".

In documents filed to a Californian court at the beginning of July, lawyers acting for Northcliffe alleged that the account holder had gained information about the company by "hacking into an email account at the plaintiff's [Northcliffe] business".

It also alleged he had posted information "apparently obtained from surveillance of plaintiff's employees".

The company insisted it was employee safety alone which had prompted the action.

"I can confirm we have taken action to ask Twitter for help in identifying the individual in order to protect our staff from harassment," Mr Auckland said in a statement before the case was dropped.

"We made no request for, nor had any input in, a decision to stop tweeting. Our first priority is a duty of care to all of our employees."

Another source at the company told the BBC: "Steve is a very open guy. The idea that he would gag someone just for being critical is just not credible - it was the offensive nature of the tweets."

'Crack a smile'

Twitter had been set to reveal the man's identity on 1 August. It said it would do so "absent the filing of a motion to quash".

That motion came thanks to a lawyer who took on the case pro-bono - provided free of charge "for the public good".

By dropping its legal action, Northcliffe has avoided a potentially long and expensive battle in the US courts.

The account holder had strongly denied the company's allegations.

In his most recent statement, he added: "The management of Northcliffe Media should be spending its time, resources and attention on supporting, protecting and developing its loyal and hard-working staff, rather than attempting to suggest my tweets were in any way affecting morale or performance of the company.

"I thank the thousands of people who have supported me in this campaign. Crack a smile for me tonight at this decision - I started tweeting as a way to make people smile and I hope we can all smile that justice has prevailed tonight."

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