How Twitter is upending British privacy laws

While extreme gag orders, or 'super injunctions,' often keep the British press from airing the private details of celebrities' court cases, they haven't yet been able to quiet the Twitterati.

By , Correspondent

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    A Manchester United supporter kisses a poster of Ryan Giggs outside the stadium before their English Premier League soccer match against Blackpool at Old Trafford in Manchester, northern England, in this May 22 file photo.
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Which Premier League soccer star had an affair with which reality TV star? How did he try to hide it? Did she blackmail him? The British press, by law, couldn't tell you. But if you really want to know, check Twitter.

And what would one find there? It was Manchester United midfielder Ryan Giggs! But with who? Yes! We knew all along! Big Brother star and Welsh model Imogen Thomas! No Way!

In a country where celebrity gossip is as beloved as fish and chips, and no one is as big a celebrity as reality TV stars and mischievous soccer players, this is the stuff of major news.

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Now, Britain is in the midst of a raging debate about celebrities' use of "super injunctions," or gag orders, to hide the details of court cases and private affairs after Mr. Giggs and Ms. Thomas were outed on Twitter. The key questions of the debate: Are injunctions overused? Do they put privacy ahead of free speech? And how do they apply in a world where tweets can be anonymous, relentless, and don't abide by British press laws.

Two hours after the first tweet revealing the gossip was posted last month, its tweeter had gone from having four followers to more than 30,000. Two hours after that, interest reached such levels that Twitter broke its traffic record in the country, with 1 in every 200 British Web surfers racing to the site, according to Web measurement firm, Experian Hitwise.

Meanwhile, the traditional newspapers and media outlets – still bound by the super injunctions – could do nothing.

Old media versus new

Feeding the fire of the current debate is the clash between an old way of doing things – where powerful and wealthy public figures, making use of tough libel and privacy laws here, can easily block information about them appearing in the press – and the new way, whereby anonymous Internet users use social media to relay whatever they please.

Whether or not the same laws bind Twitter users as the traditional media remains a question.

Danvers Baillieu, a social media lawyer, says that anyone who tweets or retweets information protected by an injunction is breaking the law.

“But with the anonymity afforded Twitter users, and the phenomenon of retweeting,” he admits, “prosecution would be difficult – if not impossible.”

Giggs, though, with a wife and children at home, money to burn, and a grudge to settle, was not deterred, and recently filed papers at the High Court demanding that Twitter disclose the names of its users who identified him.

Tweeters quickly united to fight back, swamping the site by repeatedly naming the player at a rate of up to 16 times a minute so as to try and make it impossible to track where the information was coming from. Perhaps inevitably, a new Facebook page also popped up: “Ryan Giggs is suing Twitter. I Can’t Imogen Why,” which currently has more than 75,000 fans.

A Twitter spokesman explained, via e-mail, that: “… there are tweets that we do remove, such as illegal tweets and spam… . However, we make efforts to keep these exceptions narrow so they may serve to prove a broader and more important rule – we strive not to remove tweets on the basis of their content.”

But the European head of Twitter, Tony Wang, then surprised many when he announced that “if legally required,” the company would relent to giving the police information on the tens of thousands of people who broke the super-injunction law. But, he also said, they would notify the relevant users beforehand. “Platforms have a responsibility, not to defend the user, but to protect that user’s right to defend himself or herself,” he told the BBC.

Britain's liberal privacy laws

The affair has led to a growing chorus in Britain arguing that it is the privacy laws themselves that are the problem, and that this has become all the more clear in this Internet day and age. Even Prime Minister David Cameron admitted the increasing use of such strict gag orders was “unsustainable.”

According to The Independent newspaper, Giggs's injunction was one of at least 333 gag orders protecting the identities of celebrities, children, and private individuals granted by judges over the past five years. Some of these injunctions, such as Giggs's super injunction, are so draconian that it is a crime even to mention that they exist at all.

When the Parliament took up the debate recently to discuss the implications of the information being revealed on Twitter and Facebook, MP John Hemming did the unthinkable – he named Giggs – in front of all the parliamentarian press corps.

Afterward, a slightly absurd situation arose: Would the British media's reporting of Mr. Hemming's comments break the law?

“As things stand, Britain’s twisted privacy law is archaic,” said the London Times in an editorial. “In the past, this was merely wrong. Today, it is idiotic.”

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