A British soccer player’s extramarital affair with a reality TV star is serving as a catalyst for an international legal debate about free speech on the Internet. The soccer player had been granted a super-injunction, a British legal measure — a “gagging order,” as the Guardian puts it — that prevents media outlets from identifying him. He had feared “public vilification” over the alleged affair, says the Guardian.
However, tens of thousands have named the soccer player on Twitter, Facebook and online soccer forums, rendering the injunction tantamount to useless. Last week, the soccer player requested, and got, a court order from the British High Court demanding that Twitter reveal the identities of the anonymous users who had posted his name. The injunction also applied to the Sun newspaper and the other party in the affair, ex-Big Brother contestant Imogen Thomas, a former Miss Wales.
Then, on Sunday, the Scottish newspaper, the Sunday Herald, printed a full-page picture of the player, with a black line over his eyes and the word “censored” in capital letters. An accompanying article named the soccer player as Ryan Giggs of the Manchester United soccer team.
Today in the House of Commons, John Hemming, the Member of Parliament (MP) for Birmingham Yardley, invoked parliamentary privilege and mentioned Griggs by name
Hemming made the intervention after [attorney general Dominic] Grieve announced that [Prime Minister] David Cameron had requested a joint committee of peers and MPs investigate the use of gagging orders. It came amid warnings from one influential Conservative MP that the actions of thousands of people posting details on Twitter of individuals involved in superinjunctions risked making the law “look an ass”.
To the condemnation of some of his colleagues, Hemming, who has been campaigning on the issue, exercised parliamentary privilege to identify the star at the centre of the injunction just minutes after the high court refused to lift a ban on naming the sportsman, who is said to have had a relationship with Imogen Thomas, the former Big Brother contestant.
“With about 75,000 people having named Ryan Giggs on Twitter, it’s obviously impractical to imprison them all,” Hemming said.
The High Court has again refused to lift the injunction, though, says the BBC.
A debate arose in the House of Commons following Hemming’s naming Ryan Giggs, with some MPs saying it was “incredibly irresponsible” of him to do so, and others saying that the case rather called for examining the “issues of principle involved,” rather than simply “flouting” those principles as Hemming is said to have done by naming Giggs.
The case has also brought up concerns about regulating free speech online. A New York Times review of the case — which does not name either the soccer player or the reality TV star — focused on its broader implications in view of the different laws and norms of different countries:
“If you step back, that same sort of protection is really vital to have in place when you’re talking about the individuals involved in a revolution or a social movement like the Arab Spring,” said Thomas R. Burke, a chairman of the media law practice at the firm Davis Wright Tremaine.
In a company blog post in January, Biz Stone, a Twitter founder, and Alex Macgillivray, its general counsel, wrote, “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.”
…Because Twitter is based in the United States, it could argue that it abides by the law and that any plaintiff would need to try the case in the United States, legal analysts said. But Twitter is opening a London office, and the rules are more complicated if companies have employees or offices in foreign countries.
Internet law experts notes that the posts about Giggs on Twitter would be considered legal in the US.
But if services like Twitter and Facebook had to abide by the privacy and other laws of other countries, it could be said that the Egyptian revolution might not have been possible: Think of the role Facebook played, and has continued to play, in spreading information about the protests in Tahrir Square in Cairo and around Egypt.
Says Burke in the New York Times:
“You would think at this point in the Internet you would have a clear body of law about what laws the Internet is subject to, but that is anything but clear.”
I’m not so sure that it should be so surprising that we don’t yet have such a “clear body of law.” While many have long been aware of the power of the Internet to bring information seemingly anywhere and instantaneously, the Egyptian revolution and the protests that have been occurring throughout the Middle East and North Africa have provided a renewed and exciting sense of how powerful social media sites can be not only in disseminating information, but in fostering political change. For all that the Internet has become a part of daily life for many of us, there are still many aspects — many powers — to this still-new tool that we have yet to learn about, and to learn how to regulate, whether in our own countries or all over the world.
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