Britain a-Twitter with soccer-star gossip

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Why should Americans give a tweet about a legal controversy in Great Britain involving Twitter and the English courts?

Well, for one thing, in our interconnected, Web-dependent world, what tugs at a new-tech string overseas inevitably pulls at something in U.S. society.

And in this instance, it’s pulling at several things: the First Amendment; San Francisco-based Obvious Corp., which operates Twitter; and the SPEECH Act, enacted in 2010 by Congress to protect companies and individuals in the U.S. from anti-free speech and anti-free press laws and court orders in other nations.

The controversy starts with a British legal device called a “super-injunction,” which bars any news media reporting on any aspect of a particular matter – even reporting that there is such a court order.

In the case at hand, a well-known, married soccer player obtained the super-injunction to prevent gossipy reports about a rumored affair with a reality-TV star. Though such orders have been observed by traditional news outlet, in this instance it’s reported that thousands of Twitter, Facebook and other social-media users have ignored the prohibition. They’re naming names and posting photos.

Those posts and tweets continue the Information Age blurring of the definition of “press” between traditional news organizations and individuals who post news online.

Last week, the player was granted a British High Court order demanding that Twitter reveal the names of anonymous posters who have sent messages about the affair. But there’s no actual Twitter office in Britain on which to serve the order.

If there’s an attempt to get a U.S. court to enforce the action, then Twitter likely ccould cite First Amendment protections for freedom of the press, as well as the SPEECH Act, and a legal provision called Section 230 – the only remaining part of a law called the Communications Decency Act – that shields such Internet providers from liability for material posted on their sites by others.

There are even more-serious issues raised by such situations than an athlete’s attempt to prevent public embarrassment: The definition of who is a journalist, the right of the public to hold its court system accountable and even the ability of social-network users in repressive nations to remain anonymous as they organize efforts at democratic reforms.

As the Twitter flap rages in Britain, Syrian government officials are seeking the identities of rebellious Facebook and Twitter users and unsuccessfully employing tactics such as shutting down Internet access and even electric power in neighborhoods where protests are centered.

Ultimately, democracies and despots must face the reality that the World Wide Web and its instantaneous, global reach has outfoxed laws and practices that once blocked news and information.

It’s not as if the lesson hasn’t been taught before. Canadian law for years has provided for blanket news bans on sensational criminal trials until a verdict is reached. But those courts have been powerless to prevent reports by U.S. TV stations in cities like Buffalo, Detroit and in the Northwest where station signals beam across the border.

Then there’s the ongoing irony that trying to stop the reporting about something often provokes even more reporting based on it.

The British secretary of culture said recently that Web users were making a mockery of British law, complaining of an “unfortunate and unsustainable situation where newspapers can’t print things that are freely available on the Internet.”

The decidedly irreverent online sports news site Deadspin put its own spin the matter with this headline: “Totally Anonymous Soccer Player Sues Twitter For Saying Ryan Giggs Had An Affair.”

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