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Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Twitter and public interest

In the furore over injunctions (often super-, sometimes hyper-) one thing as struck me a absolutely wrong. The fact that a single judge, sat considering evidence presented by expensive lawyers, is capable of ruling over what information is and what isn't in the public interest.

Reliable news outlets are now reporting Cabinet will meet to consider its options; reportedly including measures to regulate, read: censor, social websites such as Twitter.

I use the word censorship deliberately and considerately. Imagine for instance the recent revelations of stars alleged to hold injunctions. The injunctions were issued by a UK court, with UK jurisdiction. Consider the possibility that these revelations were posted by an overseas Twitter user.

Can a UK court force Twitter to remove such posts? I very much think a US-based company would consider this an attack on US constitution first amendment rights to free speech.

So what's the alternative? UK government could attempt to order such posts freely available to view overseas to be censored from UK viewing, one way or another. Either with the co-operation of the service provider, or via some other net filtering system.

Both these thoughts horrify me, especially since we're defending a solitary judge's ability to judge public interest balance against the public's natural ability to pass on items of interest, and filter news not of interest.

Don't blame the message-passing service

I see public opinion currently being whipped by the tabloid press in support of press freedom, but more measured tones from quality dailies and broadcast news outlets.

This time I sit with the tabloids.

Asking ordinary people to consider how they'd feel if their privacy was invaded on Twitter is somewhat moot, since it deliberately conflates personal privacy with a very specific problem of widespread publication; applicable, in the most part, only to celebrities.

Don't believe me? Think Twitter can carry a rumour (true or false) about an ordinary citizen to millions or people?

As someone who's spent the last 18 months analysing how to spread information via the social web, as well as a local politician trying to disseminate community news, I assure you it's hard enough to get 30 people to view a picture or read a blog about something I feel is of interest.

So you have my blessing. I won't sue. Tweet about me and some imaginary dalliance with two ladies of the night. It won't go viral. It might get a retweet or 2 - if it's of interest to the reader.

And that if my point about public interest. The social web is not designed as a broadcast tool, where one person can transmit a message and millions will consume that message.

Some users have amassed a following large enough to make it a personal broadcast tool, but those named high-profile individuals are clearly identified, residents of a particular given country and clearly subject to national laws of privacy and libel.

But the medium itself is largely asynchronous - each participant can transmit and receive messages. And messages get relayed by others (retweeted) when they are of interest. Twitter is itself a judge of public interest.

Whatever the flaws in the social internet, and granted I accept it will have its own pitfalls, it has to be a better judge of public interest than a solitary cloistered judge considering arguments presented by way of a well-paid firm of solicitors representing the interest of the right and powerful.


Follow-up reading:

Net censorship isn't technically feasible - I don't need to defend porn to fight the UK net filtering proposals

It's a jurisdictional nightmare - The Elastic Jurisdiction

Social web restores democracy of information - Trust filters and viral messaging antibodies in social networks: part one - vapour shields, and a brief history of comms


  1. I might respect newspaper hostility to super-injunctions a little more if knew their commercial interest was not a principal factor.

  2. I think twitter is a judge of what the public are interested in not what is in the public interest - very different concepts. I'm not sure how feasible or desirable twitter censorship would be however if your twitter feed has mass readership surely you should be subject to the same law as other media? Also a you say no one is interested in my private life so it's fine for me but why should someone be entitled to less privacy just because lots of people know who they are?

  3. Hi Nicola, I think public interest and what the public are interested in are intrinsically related.

    Notwithstanding obvious ethical/moral boundaries (ie some small sections of the public may be interested in detail clearly way beyond what is acceptable) the level of interest generated from the public is dependent on the level of public influence any given individual has.

    We all have a natural and healthy interest in the lives of those who influence us.

    This is genuine public interest, as individuals want to be sure they are influenced by people who represent the values they believe in.

    Celebrities making money in the public eye do pay a privacy price for their influence - ie. the ability for a celebrity to persuade the public to choose one brand of football boot or brand of soft drink above another. US law recognises this, and I believe UK law should do.

    Like it or not, celebrities are in a position of power over others. If we look up to someone, we want to know if these people act in a way that would affect their influence over us.

    (Obviously similar applies to politicians, but this is well documented).

    The jist of my argument is that Twitter allows information to spread widely if enough people pass-on the message. It's a public interest filter. If people enough people choose not to relay tittle tattle, it won't be widely propagated.

    James Firth

  4. But just how far does the definition of celebrity stretch. I agree that people who court media attention for profit lose some of their right to privacy but should the same apply to people who are good at writing, acting or even football and so become well known because of it. Also I think the motives you assign to people are far too high minded. Most of them just enjoy a bit of salacious gossip much as they enjoy gossip about their colleagues and social acquaintances. I also suspect there is a element of jealousy in it where celebrities are concerned. This is very far from the public interest. While a judge deciding may not be ideal (although as both sides can afford expensive lawyers at least its fair) I think its better than gossip mongers or papers who stand to make a profit from the story deciding.

  5. Hi Nicola, I prefer to think of influence rather than celebrity. There is no hard formula, which is why it's a seemingly impossible are in which to legislate.

    But what twitter brings, and no I don't think this is high minded; but, yes, this is highly assumptive - no-one knows either way - but I think a big mesh like Twitter will work naturally to propagate information about influential people in a way it won't for less influential types.

    Yes, each individual is engaging in gossip, and it's a damned shame this question is arising around sex and not something more substantive, but together the collective will of the people is to share some information and discard others.

    Some messages go viral, some don't. Incidentally, I've seen only one person in my network naming the Twitter account publishing the alleged injunctions. Just one (that I caught). From a network of nearly a 1000!

    But the crux of my argument is that surely what we're seeing is better than a solitary judge, especially since I'm defending not the tabloids or even the "quality" dailies but the massive plurality of reporting brought about by bloggers. I don't know a single blogger who would be prepared to pay £1,000 - never mind the reported minimum £20,000 it costs to challenge an injunction.

    If money talks, new media outlets will struggle to emerge, and the old media will rule. That said, I really believe a more democratised medium like Twitter will be moderated by the natural behaviours of the range of participants, and not prove to be the privacy disaster some are forecasting.


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