freedom of information
Heard the one about the footballer, the actor, English privacy laws and Twitter? Not if you live in the UK you haven’t—or so the British legal system would like you to think. However the reality is very, very different. Things are kicking off here at the moment over the distribution of certain bits of information (which cannot be mentioned) concerning certain individuals (who cannot be named) on the Internet (where all this info is being made public regardless).
In the UK the courts can issue a thing called an “injunction.” This is in effect a gagging order that stops the press from reporting on a particular story or court case, though the injunction itself can still be reported on. It can be taken one step further with the imposition of a “super-injunction,” in which the media can not even report on the issuing of the original injunction. Recently a few new Twitter accounts have popped up that claim to spill the beans and name the names in a number of super-injunctions. Although oldstream media have been forced to remain silent on these stories, the juicy details have spread like wildfire across the Internet. You can have a look for yourself, though the names will probably not mean much to a non-Brit audience—the most popular of the Twitter accounts are InjunctionSuper, SuperInjunction, and SuperInjBuster.
Some of these claims leaking through these accounts are believed to be false, but some not. If they are true, this brings English privacy laws into massive disarray, and makes injunctions pretty useless at stopping information from reaching the public. And with the information now available, people are now voicing what many have suspected for years—that super injunctions are used not for the sake of justice but to protect the careers and public images of the rich and famous by gagging the press. Comments from senior members of the legal system only go to re-enforce the idea that they are badly out of touch with the public and the reality of social networking media. From the Telegraph interview with Lord Judge (yes, that is his name) last Friday:
“The internet had “by no means the same degree of intrusion into privacy as the story being emblazoned on the front pages of newspapers”, which “people trust more”, he said.”
But Internet access means that people in the UK can quickly and easily read about the injected stories in other countries’ media, begging the question, what’s the point of injunctions in this day and age? And so the British print media are fighting back, finding ways of getting around the court’s orders. Yesterday the Scottish Sunday Herald published the face of the footballer at the centre of the biggest super injunction row, Ryan Giggs, on its front page (injunction are apparently limited ot the English press). Giggs’ name was also mentioned in British Pariliament, meaning that that story can now be reported on in the English newspapers due to rules over “Parliamentary privilege”. MPs and the courts are now at loggerheads over whether injunctions should restrict Parilamentary privilege.
The major questions all of this brings to mind are: are we going to start seeing clampdowns on freedom of expression here on the Internet? Are new rules and measures going to be put in place to stop people from talking and writing about specific topics? Those topics may or may not be true, but should we be stopped from mentioning them? And just how exactly would these potential rules on the limiting of expression be enforced? The English courts have already issued the first ever injunction specifically for Facebook and Twitter but just how they are going to enforce these laws, in this age of WIkileaks and Anonymous, of proxies, of IP address blockers, of pay as you go dongles and multiple fake online personas, remains to be seen. Somehow I just don’t think it will be as simple as the lawyer Mark Stephens (interviewed in The Independent) believes:
“The person who has committed this contempt of court will be best advised to take their toothbrush because they will probably be going to Pentonville jail,” he said. “Their emails used to upload this information are being traced, I imagine, as we speak.”
The cat is out of the bag, as it were, or to use another mammalian metaphor, the horse has bolted. New information on the super injunction story (and the stories the super injunctions are trying to protect) is coming to light every day. To keep abreast of what’s going on you could keep tabs on the British news outlets I have linked to above (The Guardian, The Independent, The Telegraph, The Evening Standard) or ironically you might just be better off getting your info from a non-British source. Me, I’ll stick to reading the no-holds-barred Super Injunction Blog. Tough luck Mr Giggs.