Conflict & Justice

Twitter fires up privacy debate in Britain

In Britain, celebrities and prominent figures there have gone to the courts seeking injunctions against the publication of embarrassing stories. And the courts have granted gag orders.

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The latest case involves a well-known soccer player and his alleged affair. A gag order kept the player's name, and the story out, of the papers. But Twitter users have taken matters into their own hands, and they've named him – over and over again.

Finally, on Monday afternoon, the legal silence over the identity of the soccer star was shattered.

It took a calculated act of defiance in parliament to do it. John Hemming, a member of the House of Commons, used the cloak of parliamentary privilege to name names, despite a court order not to.

"With about 75,000 people having named Ryan Giggs on Twitter," Hemming said in parliament, "it's obviously impractical to imprison them all."

Many in the US have probably never heard of Ryan Giggs. But the 37-year-old is a sports star over here, a star who didn't want to see any stories about his alleged extramarital affair surface in the press. So when the MP uttered Giggs' name, in spite of the gag order, the speaker of the Commons was quick to slap him down.
Twitter-led Revolt

The parliamentary naming of the litigious player is the climax of a frenzied few days. The court injunction meant to suppress his identity instead fed a Twitter-led revolt. Thousands began naming Giggs. After his lawyers asked Twitter to turn over the names of the offending tweeters, the numbers grew even larger. John Whittingdale, chair the Commons media committee, said at this point, he doubted there's anyone didn't know who the soccer – or football – player is.

"He would virtually have to be living in an igloo not to know the identity of at least one premier league footballer who has obtained an injunction," Whittingdale said. "The actions of thousands of people of posting details of this on Twitter are in danger of making the law look an ass."

And that is the serious question at the heart of this story about privacy, press freedom and gossipy tabloids. The law in England declares both a right to privacy and a right to free expression. But the right to privacy has led to more than one injunction barring the press from naming the famous. Recent cases involve not just the player, but a top bank boss and even a prominent journalist.
Free Press

Helena Kennedy, a lawyer and member of the House of Lords, has strong words for those who say they're defending press freedom in Britain.

"Let's be clear," Kennedy said. "The reason most of the tabloid press want to write about footballers is about money. This is about the corporate world wanting to make lots of money. The way to sell newspapers is to have this kind of gossip. And so when they dress it up as being all about free speech, is it really about that?

And when you have MPs standing up and making a song and dance about footballers and about oppression, whose oppression are they talking about, the oppression of somebody on Twitter who just likes engaging with the gossip?"

But the gossip has turned into a tense debate about just who can, and should, decide what the public should and shouldn't know – and whether anyone can even control it in this day and age.

It's pitting politicians against each other and the courts and the famous against not just the press, but those who live in the Twittersphere.

In the midst of all this, Twitter executives in the US have stayed silent, watching the storm rage all around them.

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