Twitter’s Super-Duper U.K. Censorship Trouble

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The U.K. media is atwitter this weekend over a controversy about press gag-orders known as “super-injunctions” that have recently been disobeyed on Twitter. It’s an unlikely combination of celebrities, sex, social media, and press freedoms that has exploded into a scandal that led Twitter this week to break its U.K. traffic record and get sued by an anonymous VIP. It’s also another example of bewildered officials having to face the new reality that information on the internet can’t be controlled.

What’s So Super About a Super-Injunction?

A super-injunction is the strictest kind of gag order a U.K. court can issue against the press. For example, say you’re a famous football player who had an affair with a reality TV star. Now the starlet is blackmailing you and threatening to go to the tabloids. Under U.K. law, your right to privacy trumps a newspaper’s freedom to publish details about your life. So, you can go to court and get an injunction preventing the media from publishing or broadcasting about the affair.

The problem is that the press can still report the fact that they have been gagged at your request, thereby fueling public speculation that might be just as bad as the details of the affair. So, courts have issued super-injunctions, which prohibit the media not only from discussing the private matter, but from even acknowledging that an injunction exists at all. It’s an attempt to throw the entire matter into the memory hole.

Now, anyone reading about this on a tech blog in 2011 should be able to guess the next twist in the story. An anonymous member of the media who presumably had knowledge of celebrities who had taken out super-injunctions started a Twitter account and posted the details. The result is that while the press can’t even begin to talk about the scandals, social media is awash with leaks, rumors and speculation. In fact, this week saw Twitter break its U.K. traffic record as Britons logged on to the site to see the super-injunction list that wasn’t available from traditional media.

Can U.S. Social Media Be Gagged?

As I’ve written before, information wants to be free, even if it’s private personal information, and it’s unlikely a court order can prevent it. That hasn’t stopped U.K. courts from trying. Last week also saw the first injunction specifically targeting new media. In the case of a woman who wants to withdraw life support from her brain-damaged daughter, a court ordered that details of the matter not be discussed in “any newspaper, magazine, public computer network, internet site, social network or media including Twitter or Facebook, sound or television broadcast or cable or satellite programme service.”

Yesterday it was revealed that Twitter was named in a lawsuit filed at the High Court in London to enforce a super-injunction. The case is listed as CTB v. Twitter, Inc., and Persons Unknown — the anonymous tweeters. According to Bloomberg, “CTB are the initials used by the court in a separate lawsuit to refer to an athlete who won an anonymity order banning the media from publishing stories about his alleged affair with a reality-television star.”

The question everyone’s now asking is, can super-injunctions really be enforced against companies based in the U.S., where the Supreme Court has roundly rejected prior restraint. The answer is yes… and no.

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