The recent media obsession over superinjunctions could lead to the unthinkable: censorship of web content here in the UK.
The story goes like this. If there is information about you that could reach the public domain and may harm you as a result, British courts may grant you an injunction. This power was designed to protect individuals from harassment, abuse or violence as a result of the information becoming public.
A recent development is the superinjunction: a ruling that prevents even the existence of the injunction being made public. There is also such thing as a hyperinjunction. This prevents the existence of the injunction being discussed even by MPs or lawyers.
It costs between £50,000 and £100,000 to take out a superinjunction, and so far only men have done so. The superinjunctions themselves throw up all kinds of issues around freedom of speech, the freedom of the press, and their inherent discriminatory nature due to the costs involved. There is effectively a two-tier system when it comes to personal privacy.
The upshot is that rich people have a way to protect their wholesome public image through the use of superinjunctions preventing media reporting, even if journalists consider the information to be in the public interest.
Putting the free speech argument aside, I'd like to examine to impact on social media, and Twitter in particular. Twitter became embroiled in the superinjunction story on 8th May when an account was set up on the site that started posting alleged details of various superinjunctions involving celebrities (for legal reasons let's not mention the name of the account here, but it's not hard to find).
If the tweets were true, not only were they breaking the law, but they were clearly making a mockery of the rulings. Information could be published online that was not printable in the traditional press.
The government acknowledges that the current situation is untenable, and Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt proposes that new watchdogs could be appointed to police social media.
This throws up a number of questions:
- The internet in the UK is, as far as can be established, independent and unregulated. Individual websites can be legally challenged over their content, but the flow of information is notoriously difficult to control, particularly with sites that are hosted abroad. After all, the system was designed to be robust and failsafe.
- It's impossible to stop someone posting information online that isn't true. In the same way, a particularly belligerent tweeter could stand at Speakers' Corner and shout the latest celebrity rumours (It's up to the crowd to decide if they're true or not).
The different between Speakers' Corner and Twitter is in the number of people that can be reached at one time by one person.
- It seems inherently wrong that anyone should be able to disseminate written information about anyone else with impunity. Site owners can be pressured by the courts to reveal user data, but any whistleblower worth their salt will be tweeting from an internet cafe using false details, so it's hard to see how they could be tracked down.
If individuals are falsely implicated in a tweet, the information may be seen by thousands or even millions of people. Even if it's not true, the damage to that person's reputation might be significant. Jemima Khan has already come forward to publicly deny claims made in the recent tweets.
- If watchdogs were created, who would the members be: Police? Lawyers? Civil servants? Would any of these services having the capacity to trawl through the millions of posts that are created each day?
Would the watchdogs be truly independent? It is likely that government pressure would be used to influence such a group. What if they started censoring the views of charities or NGOs that happened to disagree with government policy?
For me, one of the problems seems to be that we treat information from different sources in different ways. People naturally tend to believe something more if it's written down.
It has also been shown that if the reader has less time to think, they will tend to absorb the information at face value. Combined, these factors mean that people tend to give more credence to tweets than they deserve.
It's important to remember that each tweet is the opinion of one person. Unlike much Wikipedia content, or a story in a reputable newspaper, the information isn't peer-reviewed and isn't fact-checked.
This can be dangerous. In a high-tech case of Chinese whispers, an innocent tweet about an ASOS photo shoot taking place in Oxford Street this January was misinterpreted.
In the space of 11 minutes, the tweet "Street style shooting in Oxford Circus for ASOS and Diet Coke. Let me know if you’re around!!” had become "Shooting in progress in Oxford Circus, stay safe people."
This Twitter panic has occurred many times before, and on a larger scale. An example was the exaggeration over fears of a Swine Flu epidemic back in 2009. With the 140-character limit removing so much of the context needed to understand complex stories, panic spreads quickly.
In the same way that car drivers tend to forget they're hurtling along at high speed in a tonne of metal until they hit something, it is easy to forget that any information that is posted online could potentially be read by huge numbers of people. We tweet thoughts that we wouldn't necessarily say out loud, and forget the consequences.
At the same time, the freedom of speech granted by the service has been invaluable in some situations. Twitter played a key part in the recent unrest in the Middle East and was cited as the primary method of communication in Tunisia when all other services, such as Facebook, had been blocked. Any suggestion of blocking content from UK web users is likely to be strongly opposed.
Twitter has steered clear of the debate, suggesting that it would resist attempts by British Courts to censor the service, "we strive not to remove tweets on the basis of their content." Effectively, you are responsible for the content of your own tweets, and we're just the messenger.
Ultimately there has to be a line drawn between privacy and freedom of speech. Next month, the UK government is expected to have a full debate on superinjunctions and the impact of technology on privacy. It will be interesting to see where that line is drawn, in a debate that could affect the way we all communicate online in future.