The British government, responding to a flood of chatter about court cases on social media, is publishing new guidelines this week to warn people that there can be trouble if they post restricted information on sites like Facebook and Twitter.
The rules, described on the UK Attorney General’s website, purport to “help prevent social media users from committing a contempt of court,” and are an attempt to extend traditional media publication bans to the public at large.
The move comes at a time when UK courts, which regularly issue publication bans that would be unthinkable in America, are losing their power to muzzle information. In one famous example, soccer player Ryan Giggs obtained a “super-injunction” to cover up an affair, but Twitter users spread his name far and wide all the same.
In the case of Giggs, the social media explosion can be seen as a fitting response to over-bearing restrictions on free speech. Other examples, however, are less clear cut.
Twitter users recently identified the mothers of young children who were sexually molested by a rock star and also published images of a juvenile murderer who had been given a new identity by the state. Such cases, which provide a reminder of why media bans can be appropriate in the first place, appear to be driving the government’s new focus on social media.
“This is not about telling people what they can or cannot talk about on social media; quite the opposite in fact, it’s designed to help facilitate commentary in a lawful way,” wrote Attorney General Dominic Grieve, in explaining the policy.
UK courts, meanwhile, are also beginning to apply the country’s notorious libel laws to the social media sphere. In October, one celebrity had to pay $25,000 because he chose to retweet — an act that only takes one click — a false piece of news.
Such harsh outcomes can not only seem unfair but can also come across as hypocritical at a time when Western governments are hailing the use of social media as tool to spread democracy in places like Egypt and Syria.
Overall, the UK government has a legitimate interest in trying to silence Twitter and Facebook users in certain special cases — but it risks undermining its authority to do so if its courts and officials continue to apply that power too broadly.