A law unto itself
Milena Popova asks, in light of recent controversies on Twitter and Facebook, how do you manage the internet?
Image: CC-AT Flickr: Zyllan
You know that the judiciary is terrified of something related to technology when the Lord Chief Justice starts comparing it to the child pornography, as was the case late last week with the spreading of celebrity gossip on Twitter. Lord Judge was so unimpressed with Twitter users breaching a superinjunction that he called for technical measures similar to those designed to curb the distribution of child pornography to be put in place against the social networking site.
A quick recap of the story: I’ve lost track by now of whether I am or am not allowed to name names (though I’d suggest looking on Twitter on in the Sunday Herald if you really haven’t heard it by now), but an English footballer allegedly had an affair with a Big Brother star and took out what may or may not have been a superinjunction to prevent the affair being reported.
When someone on Twitter named him, his lawyers (who, one might note, are the only people making any money out of the whole story) decided to demand that Twitter hand over account details of users who’d breached the injunction. This prompted a flood of “I am Spartacus” type tweets over the weekend, thus ensuring that pretty much everyone with internet access found out about the affair, even if - like me - they’d never heard of either the footballer or the starlet before.
Lord Judge’s comments coincided not only with the footballer case but with the release of a report by Lord Neuberger on the use of injunctions and superinjunctions and the balance between the right to privacy and free speech. What is interesting in this case is that Twitter is not technically subject to UK jurisdiction, which puts it out of reach of Lord Judge and his colleagues.
Having made his extremely ill-advised comments about “new media”, Lord Judge has been strangely silent on the case of the Sunday Herald which ran a front page picture of the footballer in question. As a Scottish newspaper, it too is beyond the reach of English courts.
Another interesting case when it comes to jurisdiction over cyberspace was this story about Facebook removing a fairly innocuous picture of two men kissing. As the Facebook user in question has said himself, this is probably not a reflection of Facebook being a homophobic company so much as a single individual in their support team making a bad judgement call. I am not a lawyer and this did not go to court, but I suspect a case could be made here for a breach of the Equality Act around non-discrimination in the provision of goods a services - a comparable picture of a heterosexual couple would most probably not have been removed.
The big question here, however, is to what extent Facebook is subject to UK law. I have yet to see a definite answer to that. To an extent therefore, Lord Judge is right - Information Society Service Providers (the law’s technical name for companies like Twitter or Facebook) by their online and transnational nature can sometimes defy the laws of particular countries. I must admit to an extent I think this is good thing: I am not a fan of censorship, and ISSPs allow us in some cases to circumvent that.
But equally, I would like companies like Facebook to be subject to laws such as the Equality Act. Unlike Lord Judge, I don’t think I have an answer to this dilemma. More censorship clearly is not the solution, and comparing celebrity gossip to child pornography in an attempt to fan public hysteria is not going to get us any closer to one. I would encourage Lord Judge to educate himself about technology, though - maybe then we can have a productive debate on the subject.
Milena is an economics & politics graduate, an IT manager, and a campaigner for digital rights, electoral reform and women's rights. She tweets as @elmyra
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