The Ambiguity Of The Tweet
As Twitter grows, it's inevitably attracting complaints. In the most recent high-profile example, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich recently sent a cease and desist letter to a blogger who is lobbying on Twitter for passage of the Employee Free Choice Act -- a law aimed at making it easier for workers to organize.
The blogger apparently used Gingrich's name in the tweet as follows: "Join @newtgingrich ... in signing the Freedom Not Fear EFCA petition."
He complains that the use of his name, and link to his Twitter feed, conveys the wrong impression that he supports the union-backed law. Gingrich also asserts that the tweet constituted trademark infringement, violation of his publicity rights, false advertising and a host of other legal wrongs.
The Citizen Media Law Project mocks the cease-and-desist letter's legal claims, but also asks an intriguing question: "What degree of clarity can we (and should we) expect from 'gripe' tweets, given the 140 character limit that is hard coded into the medium?"
Consider, when bloggers want to poke fun at public figures, it's usually obvious from the context that the sites aren't affiliated with the people they're discussing. And if that's not apparent, bloggers can add a disclaimer to the top of the site that spells it out. But it's not yet clear how Twitter users can work those disclaimers into the limited space that's available.
Cyberlaw expert Eric Goldman, director of the High Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University, says that this type of problem has come up before. "Whenever there's a new way of presenting information, it takes a while for people to sort through the conventions of that information source," he says.
For instance, he says, people today typically understand what the words "sponsored link" mean in the Google results, but that wasn't always the case.
"We see this with every new interface that gets developed on the Internet," he says. "It takes a while for people to catch up."