Federal Court orders Twitter to release information on controversial @PRGuy17 account

The Federal Court has ordered Twitter to release information that could reveal the identity of the person behind a high-profile political account that attracted large audiences during the pandemic with its pro-lockdown and pro-Labor commentary.

The anonymous account is being sued for defamation by right-wing commentator Avi Yemini.

Justice Debra Mortimer on Tuesday gave the social media giant 14 days to hand the basic subscriber information of @PRGuy17, including the name and email address connected to the account, to Yemini, so he could pursue legal action.

PRGuy17 wrote in a tweet on Tuesday evening that any efforts to silence the account would grow my voice.

Some of the most important things any of us say require huge sacrifices, the tweet said.

I’m a fierce supporter of free speech — even when I disagree or my feelings are hurt — and I’ll fight for it.

I’m just getting started.

PRGuy17, whose profile photo is of The Simpsons character Troy McClure, built a following during the pandemic, often in vociferous defence of Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews and critical of various conservative political leaders and mainstream news media.

Yemini filed proceedings in the Federal Court in February, promising to unmask the identity of the Twitter account. Yemini, a journalist at far-right media outlet Rebel News, was critical of the Andrews government’s management of the pandemic and clashed with the account on Twitter.

Mortimer’s order stipulates that Twitter must also disclose the date the account was registered and known internet protocol addresses for the period from December 31, 2021, to February 11, 2022, and March 21, 2022, to May 20, 2022.

If @PRGuy17’s identity is not revealed from the registered email address or name, which could be a further pseudonym, Yemini may have to seek further court orders to force @PRGuy17’s internet service provider to hand over billing details associated with the account’s online address.

The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald have contacted @PRGuy17 for comment via direct message on Twitter, but there is no indication they have seen the message. The account had also not filed any documents with the Federal Court over the matter or nominated any legal representation.

@PRGuy17 said in a recent tweet that they worked at a cafe, and they were identified as J. M. in an online fundraiser launched last month that has raised more than $18,000.

Labor-linked lobbying firm Hawker Britton has claims that one of its staffers is PRGuy17.

Twitter, which consented to the Federal Court orders, declined to comment via a spokesman.

Yemini told The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald he believed the order was a win for transparency because the account often posted messages about political issues in Victoria.

I think it’s a win for Victorians to finally know who is behind this account which controlled the entire conversation about Daniel Andrews and the Labor government on Twitter, he said.

The confines of free speech doesn’t give you the right to hide behind a fake profile to defame or do a lot of the things that PRGuy has done. It doesn’t stop the consequence of your actions.

Yemini has pledged to bring a defamation suit against the account holder, but can’t do it until he knows their identity. Twitter previously told the court it would not hand over user details without an order.

Yemini has a long history as a fringe provocateur, including calling himself a Jewish Nazi in what he later claimed was a joking barb at left-wing intolerance. He has been fundraising off his stoush, urging supporters to tip into a legal fund.

@PRGuy17 and Yemini traded barbs in tweets on the platform over the Andrews government’s approach to the pandemic.

It is not the first time plaintiffs have attempted to unmask the identity of online users who have posted negative messages, comments or reviews about them.

In March 2021, gangland lawyer after the Federal Court dismissed her bid to force the search engine giant to reveal who was behind negative online reviews.

And in June 2020, Northcote dentist Matthew Kabbabe compelled the search engine to hand over data to help identify an anonymous reviewer called CBsm 23.

University of Sydney media law professor David Rolph said court rules to identify people potentially subject to a defamation claim were long-established and increasingly used to penetrate social media pseudonyms.

These steps where you have to take court action to unmask the user responsible for the content are occurring with increasing frequency, Rolph said.

Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk, who has agreed to buy Twitter but is now backpedalling from the deal, has mused about requiring all users to authenticate that they are real people in an effort to crack down on spam accounts.

However, it is not clear if that would force users to publicly identify their real names.

Yemini has not yet filed the defamation claim.

with Jackson Graham

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