Twittering is what birds did once — usually at some elevation from the earth. “Gathering swallows,” wrote an English poet in the 19th century, “twitter in the skies.” Today, in the second decade of the 21st century, this form of avian communication has been taken over by a generation of human beings who are not only clever with the newest machines but also exceptionally nimble with their fingers. Yet, they still regard twittering as taking place outside the realm of decent or legal human conduct, outside law and civility. The internet is seen by them as distant from the earth, like the sky, where cyber-swallows may gather, ungather and regather with impunity. So, the State, especially in its legal avatar, has to remind these nimble, innumerable and faceless creatures from time to time that what they do also falls within the purview of human propriety and law, and that anonymity or numerousness is not immunity.
The British government’s most senior law officer, the attorney general, has issued a caution to the owners and users of social media sites like Twitter and Facebook to not take the internet for granted as a “law-free arena”. He has pointed out that someone doing a tweet is no different from someone going down to the pub with printed sheets of paper and handing them out. The idea that tweeters have immunity because they are anonymous, or ungovernably numerous, is a “big mistake”. This conflict between the internet’s inherently democratic nature and the simultaneous need to bring it within the purview of law and decent human behaviour is built into the medium itself. Like most other problems of democracy, different governments must find different, and contingent, ways of resolving this conflict.