If there’s one thing the Internet is good at, it’s distributing information, regardless of whether those who control the information want to see it distributed or not. And this “democracy of distribution,” as Om likes to call it, is particularly powerful when it is combined with a real-time social tool like Twitter. Those forces can help you spread a message, or they can help others spread messages about you — as a British football player has discovered to his chagrin, by trying to prevent not only the media in his country from reporting on his personal life, but all of Twitter as well.
Manchester United player Ryan Giggs started this particular ball rolling earlier this year by getting what is called a “super injunction” in a British court: an order that not only prevents the media from reporting on an affair between Giggs and a prominent reality TV star, but also prevents anyone from reporting that such an injunction even exists. While these kinds of super injunctions, which are unique to Britain, work to some extent on the local media, they are no match for a distributed network like Twitter.
After tens of thousands of users started discussing the Giggs case and who was involved, the footballer got a second court order aimed at forcing Twitter to reveal their names and identities. The company hasn’t said how it plans to respond to the order, but the ironic outcome of Giggs’ court orders has been to publicize the very things the plaintiff says he doesn’t want publicized. This is a perfect example of what has become known as the “Streisand Effect,” an Internet phenomenon named for the famous singer Barbra Streisand — who tried to have photos of her house removed from the Internet in 2003, and only succeeded in publicizing them even further.
So not only has Giggs succeeded in publicizing the affair he was trying to keep secret, but his attempts to smother and/or force Twitter to disclose user information are almost certain to fail. The U.S. Department of Justice might be able to make a case to force Twitter to release user identities in trying to make an espionage case against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, but a football player who is trying to conceal an affair isn’t likely to have much success — especially since Twitter is a U.S. corporation and therefore not subject to a British super injunction.
British courts seem to be trying their hardest to enforce antiquated information-related laws, with another judge recently ordering that information about a second case not be revealed on Twitter or Facebook. As I mentioned with respect to that case, this is a little like the legendary King Canute of Denmark ordering the ocean to stop rolling up onto the beach. Courts and governments — and football players — may not like the implications of a totally distributed real-time information network, but they are going to have to start living with it sooner rather than later.