If PRGuy was a journalist’s source, that identity could remain secret: a guide for anonymous Twitter users

The true identity of the human behind the Twitter account of @PRGuy17 is currently unknown to the broader public, including Avi Yemini of Rebel News, who claims PRGuy defamed him. That identity may be known very soon. On Wednesday, Twitter complied with a court order and handed over information that may eventually identify the guy – whether that is a he or a she or a they.

Yemini might fairly be described as an alt-right polemicist. I’m no fan. One might presume that PRGuy — like me, a Labor supporter — isn’t either.

For those out of the loop: PRGuy has published material about Yemini on Twitter, and now Yemini wants to sue PRGuy for defamation. To do that, he needs to know who PRGuy really is.

Earlier this month, the Federal Court granted an order requiring the foreign entities behind Twitter to hand over basic subscriber information for @PRGuy17, including names and email addresses behind the account (which may lead nowhere), and IP addresses. Now that Twitter has complied with the order, Yemini – with the help of lawyers and IT people – has traced the IP addresses to Telstra.

If Telstra is to help, Yemini should be able to identify an actual account holder. From there, Yemini could sue the identified person.

Australian courts favour open justice, so the guy behind PRGuy would become known to the world at large.

But will Telstra hand over PRGuy’s account information? Telstra won’t simply hand over a user’s personal details on request. Telstra is bound by a framework of laws which provide some cover for users’ privacy. But users’ privacy rights are not absolute.

Yemini could use the same process that he wielded against Twitter to get Telstra to identify the account holder. In the Federal Court, this is called preliminary discovery. If certain criteria are satisfied, the court will compel someone (or, in this case, Telstra) to hand over identifying information about another person, so you can decide whether to sue that other person.

This kind of procedure is nothing new. Back in the 70s, an English court decided you can get an injunction compelling someone to disclose information about another person, in circumstances where the person bound by the order is mixed up in the wrongdoing of that other person. This kind of order is named after the case that spawned it; it’s called a Norwich Pharmacal order.

This is one of the reasons why media lawyers like me thought the Morrison government’s plan to unmask trolls was stupid. We can already do that, and have been doing it for years.

Anyway, it is likely that Telstra will end up handing over PRGuy’s account information – not because it chooses to, but because it will be forced to.

Let’s consider an alternative scenario: PRGuy learns dodgy stuff about Yemini, but doesn’t tweet it. PRGuy instead approaches a journalist from a media organisation such as this one. The journalist then publishes a story about Yemini using that information, for which PRGuy is the anonymous source.

Yemini could sue the journo and the masthead for defamation; whether he would win is another question. But if he tried to get information about the source – about the identity of PRGuy – he would fail.

Generally, neither the journo nor the masthead would have to identify PRGuy in the course of handing over relevant evidence to Yemini through discovery. They would be protected by a principle called the newspaper rule, which recognises the public interest in news media protecting the identities of sources.

Further, they would be protected by shield laws, which give effect to the presumption that a journalist/source relationship should remain confidential. In NSW, this is seen in the Evidence Act 1995 (NSW) s 126K.

Why do journos’ sources get protection but PRGuy doesn’t? The way we access information has radically changed in my lifetime. Not that long ago, media outlets like this one were the only option for news. These days, quality journalism is supplemented by a cacophony on social media and elsewhere. Some of it is credible and valuable, and some of it is not.

The law protecting journalists’ sources was developed with traditional models of journalism in mind. New models of journalism – or something in the vicinity of it – are treated differently. Anonymous Twitter accounts may drop information in the public interest, but that doesn’t mean the law respects the anonymity that might accompany the platform.

So what does that mean for whistleblowers who don’t want to end up spending a fortune on media lawyers for sharing the truth?

Go to someone credible rather than sharing it yourself on Twitter. Look at intelligence contractor Edward Snowden: when he leaked the gory details of PRISM, he did so through The Washington Post and The Guardian. Snowden is a smart dude. If you are going to wreck the intelligence-gathering operation of Western civilisation, do so as responsibly as possible.

Compare Chelsea Manning, who leaked classified intelligence via WikiLeaks. The Manning and WikiLeaks mode of operating had more of a freedom of speech vibe about it, but people went to jail. Julian Assange’s libertarianism translated to a failure to filter what he published. He did not ensure the details of what was released always served the public interest. It has polluted his legacy.

PRGuy is a very different kettle of fish but, like Assange, the guy has done things his or her own way.

The tragedy of the situation is that the activism of PRGuy is a product of the failure of the majority of Australia’s traditional news media organisations to provide responsible coverage of state governments’ responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many journos shrieked for freedom along with the far-right nutcases, including people who’ve barracked for Yemini .

PRGuy shrieked a different tune. It was a lefty antidote for the sickness of selfishness that thwarted our response to the pandemic.

The need for PRGuy was created by the failures of the traditional media, and now his identity will be exposed by law designed for traditional media. The defamation litigation battle to follow promises to be epic.

Michael Douglas is a defamation lawyer at Bennett + Co, and Senior Lecturer at UWA Law School

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