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On the internet, just like everywhere else, time only moves in one direction: forward. But that doesn’t stop people trying to turn the clock back.
Take Britain’s royal family, who contacted the editors of the UK’s newspapers after TMZ published a series of photographs of the man third in line to the throne cavorting, naked, with young women in Las Vegas. Don’t print those photos, they asked: it’d be an invasion of Harry’s privacy.
Whether or not you believe that royals deserve such privacy, or whether there was public interest in exposing his exposure, the reality was that on a practical level it seemed like a ludicrous request. The images had already been seen by millions online, through social networks and on the web — in Britain as well as around the world.
And yet, incredibly, the request worked … at least for a while.
It took an entire day for Rupert Murdoch’s arch-tabloid Sun to break the silence, and by the time it did, it was forced to admit the absurdity of its position.
“Heir it is!” punned the headline. “Pics of naked Harry you’ve already seen on the internet.”
Just think about that for a second. What an astonishing admission of its own irrelevance for a newspaper to make.
And yet we’re seeing this sort of situation come up again and again in different ways as the world of secrets rubs up against the era of democratized distribution and radical transparency.
Streisand versus the super-injunction
Most of the time the friction is when one group — one with a secret of some sort to protect — misunderstands the unruly way information can behave online: The Streisand Effect famously describes the way that the attempt to keep something quiet, actually ends up amplifying it for the internet.
There are countless examples of this — some of them very important, others less so. In 2009, The Guardian was not only barred by the British courts from publishing a story about the Dutch firm Trafigura dumping toxic waste in Africa, it was banned from writing about the injunction. But things fall apart: the details of the super-injunction hit the web, and Trafigura’s attempt to hide its activities was not just over — it was bigger news than ever. It’s the cover-up, after all, that kills you.
Trafigura was a prime example of what the media, and groups like the royal family, still need to understand: that the internet’s great magic trick is to make mass distribution possible, while simultaneously making control impossible.
It’s a pattern that is being repeated over and over.
Forget what you think of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange: the organization’s publication of secret State Department memos changed the game for the way information moves. The U.S. government knew that publication was coming, but it also knew that it was almost impossible to prevent once it had hit the public sphere.
Just look at Gawker’s audacious dump of 950 pages of documents detailing Mitt Romney’s financial affairs. Many will wring their hands over the ethics of such a move. Should it be public? Should it be private? Was it right for Gawker’s boss Nick Denton (another trouble-making Brit) to publish?
Right now those arguments don’t matter: the fact is that data is out there and it can’t go back. Whether it’s right or wrong, the barriers have been broken down.
What happened with Prince Harry and the British press was not quite the Streisand Effect, because the photos weren’t a secret, even in litigious, furtive Britain. But it is a form of radical transparency — and not just in the way it exposed Harry’s backside to the planet.
Harry and his henchmen should realize that we are now way beyond Stewart Brand’s famous dictum that “information wants to be free”. We now live in a world where information struggles to be anything else: if it can be digitized, it can be distributed… and if it can be distributed, then nobody — not even the Queen of England — can control it.