Twitter, The British Press, Super Injunctions And The Freedom Of Tweets

Earlier in the month, we wrote about the exploits of an anonymous Twitter user that blew the whistle on a number of gagging orders – known as super-injunctions – that had been established in a court of law by various celebrities in the United Kingdom.

To date, it appears to be a one-time thing, as the profile hasn’t updated since it first tweeted on May 8. But while the revelations did contain some errors – thankfully, Jeremy Clarkson has not had any kind of intimate relationship with Jemima Khan – clearly there was a fair bit of factual accuracy in the tweets. And now, thanks to an ill-advised legal campaign by one of the outed stars, Twitter has been flung firmly into the limelight. And its denizens have responded in kind.

A little history. On May 8, 2011, a series of tweets were made from a freshly-registered and anonymous account posting under the username @injunctionsuper.

A number of celebrities were named and shamed, but it’s that first tweet that has had far and away the biggest impact, being retweeted thousands of times and creating waves that have moved above and beyond the normal Twitter dams. Subsequently, the alleged affair between football superstar Ryan Giggs and former Big Brother contestant Imogen Thomas was thrown very much into the public domain. Giggs and the scandal has been referenced, directly or otherwise, tens of thousands of times on Twitter.

The gagging order meant that Thomas could be named in the UK media but Giggs could not, and at first, the mainstream press didn’t really know what to do with these events. But when an anomymous footballer (filing under the name “CTB”) used London-based law firm Schillings to undertake legal action against Twitter – specifically, to obtain the identity of the @injunctionsuper account (good luck with that) and various other users involved in the leak – the press had a field day. I mean, who else could it be? Giggs was the only footballer named in the tweets. Why even bother with an alias?

But still the newspapers held back from outing Giggs, favouring shadowy silhouettes for the sportsman but quite happy to go all out on saucy pictures of Thomas.

Yesterday, Scottish newspaper The Sunday Herald took things quite a bit further with this front page, which all but revealed the mystery man, becoming the first mainstream publication to do so.

“What’s getting lost in this is what we printed: that the guy in question has been named in thousands of tweets. I don’t know whether or not he’s the man taking out the injunction, but I do know we can say in all certainty that he’s the man being named on Twitter,” said Sunday Herald editor Richard Walker. “It seems odd thousands of people can name him online, but if a newspaper states the truth it’s not allowed.”

The Sunday Herald has a circulation of just over forty thousand. I guess they weighed up the consequences of a lawsuit against the on- and offline readership benefits, and the latter won. And good for them.

But was it that much of a risk? The paper themselves have argued that the injunction is only valid in England and doesn’t affect Scottish media. As the Herald is published by a Scottish company and distributed only in Scotland they would appear to be correct. But if that was the case, why cover up the player’s eyes? Why not go all the way?

And what of Twitter itself? The company has solid and well-established policy when it comes to the freedom of speech. Wrote co-founder Biz Stone back in January of this year:

Our position on freedom of expression carries with it a mandate to protect our users’ right to speak freely and preserve their ability to contest having their private information revealed. While we may need to release information as required by law, we try to notify Twitter users before handing over their information whenever we can so they have a fair chance to fight the request if they so choose.

So, whilst on paper Twitter could comply, history says they won’t.

For her part, Thomas, who had been accused of attempting to blackmail Giggs in the ruling, was quite clear on how she felt. “Yet again my name and reputation have been trashed while the man I had a relationship with is able to hide. What’s more I can’t even defend myself because I have been gagged. If this is the way privacy injunctions are supposed to work there is something seriously wrong with the law.”

Even Wikipedia is now publically outing Giggs, and Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales summed things up rather nicely. “This only became a story because the footballer is pursuing legal action against Twitter,” he told The Independent. “In the UK, I think the system is going to have to change. People are going to realise that it is an infringement of the right to free speech. People are going to get sick of the rich and powerful being able to suppress things they do not want to get out.”

The @injunctionsuper account is still live – that is, it hasn’t been removed or shut down by Twitter – but hasn’t updated since. The damage is evidently done. But more importantly it has exposed the limitations of the British legal system and made a mockery of these injunctions – and those involved – and it once again reinforces the difference that Twitter and its inhabitants have made to our world.

The balance here is that there is a very fine line between an individual’s right to privacy and the right we all enjoy to freedom of expression. Certainly when it comes to these super injunctions, nobody would question their usage during matters of national security or where somebody’s life was at risk, but I don’t think anyone is convinced that the suppression of allegations of an affair is the greatest example of the protection of privacy.

Of course, given that these laws don’t appear to apply outside of Britain, and how Twitter has demonstrated it can so quickly and ruthlessly expose just about anything, one has to wonder if there is any point in these injunctions at all. Information wants to be known. It demands it. And who are we to stand in its way?