Super-injunctions and the Speed of Twitterlight

I just finished watching a Dateline London round table discussion on the BBC with a group of journalists discussing the issue of super-injunctions and how technologies like twitter can render these kind of legal strategies powerless.

For the non-Brits among you, a super-injunction is a gag order imposed by the a British court that prohibits the publication of not only of the facts and allegations under examination, but even the complainants names and the very existence of the injunction itself. See the Wikipedia entry on this for more details.

It’s easy to understand, in an era where the press tramples all over people’s private lives, why the idea of a super-injunction might be necessary. Is it really anyone’s business that a footballer is having an affair? But the problem is more complex, because it has, at times, been employed to obscure facts that probably were very much in the public interest and which the public has had a legitimate right to know.  It provides a mechanism for even obscuring the actual functions of the law. Also, the legal costs of petitioning for a super-injunction are such that only the very rich can afford to obtain them. And finally, the newspapers who have so vociferously argued against them are often not, one imagines, doing it out of some altruistic belief in free speech, but in order to publish things that sell them more newspapers.

What has become clear though, is that technologies like Twitter make the upholding of a super-injunction almost impossible. If information contained within a super-injunction is leaked onto the net via a real-time streaming, it is simply impossible to prosecute all the tweeters who pass the information on.

I think we are looking at this in the wrong way. Imagine what life must have been like in a small village on market day and contemplate the barrage of true and false rumours and pieces of gossip that must have flown around – ruining people’s reputations, invading their privacy, false accusations and no way for the subjects to debate or refute them. Or real and true information about someone’s life which, for many people, should be considered private.

Twitter is very much like the global village at market day. And I’d suggest that it’s as popular as it is because, in fact, in a world where we no longer have the companionship and intimacy of market day, Twitter has walked in to serve something akin to a basic social need.

The problem is that the spoken word evaporates leaving only ghosts of itself behind on the tongues of others. Twitter is a database and the things posted remain trapped in digital amber for posterity and for all to read.

Any legal strategy designed to foil this is doomed to failure. Any notion of limiting the access of Twitter to within national boundaries where the breakers of injunctions might be prosecuted is ludicrous.

What is more important, for the civility of our societies, is that we teach our children that public speech has consequences. That gossip and rumour and the passing on of inappropriate and personally private information is simply not right.

We are not going to raise the level of public discourse by quashing it. The only way to improve it is by demanding of ourselves and our children a higher level of responsibility. A recognition that each of us are the creators of this intangible but very real landscape and we have an obligation not to turn it into a slag heap or a wasteland.