LONDON (Reuters) - Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak failed to stem protest by turning off the Internet. Syria couldn’t stop mobile phone video of bloody crackdowns appearing on YouTube.
The U.S. struggled to prevent the spread of Wikileaks cables and all the efforts of China’s authorities haven’t quite halted online dissent.
Now, a selection of mid-ranking British celebrities who hoped expensive court “superinjunctions” would hide affairs or indiscretions may be the latest victims of the rising power of the Internet and social media.
No one knows quite how many actors, sportsmen, companies and others have obtained such judgments in recent years to stop publication of embarrassing or damaging allegations. Estimates vary from a few dozen to up to 200.
Only available in Britain but theoretically with global reach, superinjunctions ban media outlets from mentioning not only the details of the case and the identities of those involved but even the existence of the injunction itself.
Breaching the order would put someone in contempt of court, liable to an unlimited fine and up to two years in prison.
Mainstream media organizations largely — if reluctantly — obeyed; but in recent weeks a string of identities and occasionally explicit details have leaked anyway, largely via Twitter and the wider Internet.
The highest profile, Manchester United footballer Ryan Giggs, was on Monday finally outed by mainstream media after an MP used “parliamentary privilege” to name him after tens of thousands of Twitter users had done likewise.
“It’s the latest example of social media really letting the cat out of the bag,” said Jonathan Wood, global issues analyst for London-based consultancy Control Risks. “In a globalised world, controlling information in this way is getting much more difficult.”
“Naming Private Ryan” proclaimed the front page of Britain’s Daily Mirror. While details of his alleged affair remain secret, the veteran player is now suffering more media attention than he would have had the story simply run.
Critics have said that the orders effectively allowed the rich and powerful to buy media silence. Lawyers estimate that getting a super injunction likely costs some 100,000 pounds. But supporters say they are still worthwhile and in demand.
“Recent events have not done away with requests for help to protect the unlawful disclosure of private information,” said Magnus Boyd, a partner at London solicitors Carter-Ruck — renowned for representing privacy-hungry clients against Britain’s newspapers.
“There is still a value to injunctions in appropriate circumstances. (They) are only granted in exceptional circumstances and only when the court is persuaded that there is just cause.”
But Prime Minister David Cameron and other senior politicians say a new “privacy law” is needed rather than leaving the matter to the discretion of courts and judges. He said the current situation created the “unsustainable” situation whereby media could not report on something everyone in the country was talking about.
Some hope a new UK law could become a template for wider European and international regulation, protecting individuals from scurrilous, often untrue accusations that could wreck families or businesses.
But others warn it might still be ineffective. With the Internet crossing borders, foreign-based websites in particular might find their way around any national legislation. Wikileaks, for example, has already moved to locate its servers in countries it sees as more friendly such as Iceland.
Tellingly, few of the celebrities identified aside from Giggs so far have much if any name recognition outside Britain.
Truly global figures such as golfer Tiger Woods, his adulterous affairs emblazoned over the media, or former IMF chief Dominique Strauss Kahn would find it even tougher to stifle worldwide media chatter across multiple jurisdictions.
One public relations expert estimated it could cost up to $100,000 a month in legal fees to keep a story out of the mainstream media simultaneously in, for example, Britain, the US and France simultaneously — and even then a website based in another country might still run it.
“National law has much less meaning on the Internet,” said Control Risks’ Wood. “Governments can — as China does — block individual websites but it’s hard to stop information leaking through. It’s also hard to hold sites like Twitter responsible for everything that is written on them.”
Some celebrities are said to be aiming to take legal action to force Twitter to identify those who broke superinjunctions and name names from anonymous Twitter accounts. Some argue the micro-blogging site should apply controls.
“Perhaps the real outlaws here are the platforms such as Twitter that control the flow of information without wanting to take responsibility for moderating the content,” said Boyd at Carter-Ruck. “It should be possible to build in some kind of filter to limit the flow of unlawful content.”
But even the best filters have limits. As part of its strategy of what some analysts call “networked authoritarianism,” China has blocked Twitter and aggressively moderates the Chinese-language sites offering a similar service.
Keen to stop discussion of the implications of Middle East unrest for China, authorities blocked searches for words such as “Egypt” and “Mubarak.” But they had only mixed success, with some users using alternate spellings or euphemisms.
Some simply chose to refer to Mubarak instead as “Mu-Jintao,” aggregating his name with that of Chinese leader Hu-Jintao — precisely the connection the authorities wanted to avoid being made.
Authoritarian states are said to be increasing the use of social networking sites to identify potential dissidents for arrest. High-profile journalists who break superinjunctions could still face jail. But stopping the wider online conversation could prove as hard as halting malicious verbal gossip in an office or school playground.
“The landscape is changing as we speak,” said Kevin Craig, managing director of London-based firm Political Lobbying and Media Relations (PLMR) “ As it stands, there’s just no way to police social media... but that doesn’t mean people shouldn’t have a right to privacy. Anyone who thinks they are easy answers to this is just making it up.”
Editing by Ralph Boulton