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It’s not Personal, just Twitter

April 4, 2019

Alberta Privacy Commissioner orders release of names of blocked Twitter accounts

The Alberta Information and Privacy Commissioner has given guidance about the interaction between privacy legislation and Twitter with its decision in Alberta Education (Re). The applicant had made a request under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIP Act) to a public body, Alberta Education, requesting a list of Twitter users/accounts that they had been blocked for each Twitter account that they operated or authorized. Alberta Education provided some records in response but refused to provide the names of some of the blocked Twitter accounts. They did so on the basis of section 17(1) of the FOIP Act, which states that

17(1) The head of a public body must refuse to disclose personal information to an applicant if the disclosure would be an unreasonable invasion of a third party’s personal privacy.

The Adjudicator ultimately decided that there was insufficient information to show that section 17(1) applied, and therefore directed Alberta Education to give the applicant access to the requested information. 

Section 17 operates only when the disclosure of personal information would be an unreasonable invasion of a third party’s personal privacy. Under the FOIP Act, not all disclosure of personal information amounts to an unreasonable invasion of personal privacy. Under section 17(2), for example, information which reveals financial details of a contract to supply goods or services to a public body is not an unreasonable invasion: on the other hand section 17(4)(g) states that disclosure presumptively is an invasion of personal privacy if

(g) the personal information consists of the third party’s name when 

(i) it appears with other personal information about the third party, or

(ii) the disclosure of the name itself would reveal personal information about the third party

Section 17(5) sets out a number of non-exhaustive factors to be considered in determining whether a disclosure of personal information constitutes an unreasonable invasion of a third party’s personal privacy, such as whether the personal information is relevant to a fair determination of the applicant’s rights, or whether the personal information is likely to be inaccurate or unreliable.

However, before any of that analysis becomes necessary, the information in question must be found to be personal information under s 17(1), which requires that the information must have a personal dimension and be about an identifiable individual. Here, Alberta Education had withheld the names of Twitter accounts and the associated image where it believed the information might reveal the identity and image of the account holder, on the basis that disclosure might enable the applicant to infer the identity of individuals engaged in inappropriate conduct. The Adjudicator questioned whether, given the reality of Twitter, such an inference was possible:

[para 22] A Twitter account name is the name of an account, rather than the name of an individual. While some individuals may use their names as the name of their Twitter account, others do not. In addition, organizations and “bots” may also use Twitter accounts. I note that a July 11, 2018 article in the New York Times reports: 

Twitter will begin removing tens of millions of suspicious accounts from users’ followers on Thursday, signaling a major new effort to restore trust on the popular but embattled platform.

The reform takes aim at a pervasive form of social media fraud. Many users have inflated their followers on Twitter or other services with automated or fake accounts, buying the appearance of social influence to bolster their political activism, business endeavors or entertainment careers.

Twitter’s decision will have an immediate impact: Beginning on Thursday, many users, including those who have bought fake followers and any others who are followed by suspicious accounts, will see their follower numbers fall. While Twitter declined to provide an exact number of affected users, the company said it would strip tens of millions of questionable accounts from users’ followers. The move would reduce the total combined follower count on Twitter by about 6 percent — a substantial drop. 

[para 23] I note too, that an article in Vox describes the prevalence of fake and automated Twitter accounts: 

In April, Pew found that automated accounts on Twitter were responsible for 66 percent of tweeted links to news sites. Those aren’t necessarily the bots Twitter is after: Automation remains okay to use under many circumstances. But the “malicious” are being targeted. Gadde said Wednesday that the new accounts being deleted from follower accounts aren’t necessarily bot accounts: “In most cases, these accounts were created by real people but we cannot confirm that the original person who opened the account still has control and access to it.” Weeding out these accounts might discourage the practice of buying fake followers.

Twitter has acknowledged it contributed to the spread of fake news during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and is trying not to have a repeat showing. It’s verifying midterm congressional candidate accounts, it launched an Ads Transparency Center, and now come the new culls.

[…] 

The Washington Post notes that Twitter suspended more than 70 million accounts in May and June. Twitter also said recently that it’s challenging “more than 9.9 million potentially spammy or automated accounts per week.” [my emphasis] (“Challenged” doesn’t necessarily mean “suspended,” but users are prompted to verify a phone or email address to continue using the account.)

[para 24] From the foregoing, I understand that millions of Twitter accounts may be automated or fake. As a result, the name of a Twitter account cannot be said to have a personal dimension necessarily, even though an account may have the appearance of being associated with an identifiable individual

The information requested, the Adjudicator concluded, would be about Twitter accounts, which was not the same thing as being about individuals:

[para 28] As it is not clearly the case that the accounts severed under section 17 are associated with identifiable individuals, and there is no requirement that a Twitter user use his or her own name or image, or be a human being, the fact that the Twitter account was blocked does not necessarily reveal personal information about an identifiable individual.

[para 29] To put it in the terms used by the Alberta Court of Appeal, the evidence before me supports finding that the information severed by the Public Body is “about a Twitter account”, rather than “about an identifiable individual”.

Since the standard for withholding information was that it would be an unreasonable invasion of a third party’s personal privacy to disclose the information, Alberta Education could not refuse the application on the lower standard that it could possibly be personal information. Accordingly she ordered Alberta Education to release the requested information.

At the request of Alberta Education the adjudicator also commented on the applicability of this reasoning to email accounts, finding that if there was evidence establishing that an email address was connected to an identifiable individual and the email address appears in a context that reveals personal information about the individual, then the information would be personal information and the public body must consider section 17. Where that was not true, however, then section 17 was not applicable.

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