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A View from Erica Naone

Soccer Scandal Tests Twitter's Boundaries

Twitter sees a huge spike after users reveal the name of a player who obtained a “super-injunction.”

  • May 23, 2011

It’s never been easy to keep information from spreading across the Internet, as a recent legal fight between a prominent UK soccer player and the Twitter user behind an anonymous account illustrates.

Forbes explains the basic details of the case:

After a Twitter user alleged sexual indiscretions by a host of British celebrities that were allegedly protected by super injunctions, it set off a firestorm, forcing British lawmakers to think about whether such a thing is still feasible in the age of social media, and if it is, how to enforce it. One of the celebs, a soccer player who is alleged to have a super injunction for scoring goals with a woman who was not his wife, has filed a lawsuit to find out who the user behind the anonymous @InjunctionSuper account is. His lawyers identify him as “CTB” in the lawsuit, but it quickly emerged through social media and the American press (which is not subject to the super injunction) that the client was Manchester United player Ryan Giggs.

Newspapers have stepped into the mix as well. The Guardian describes how a Scottish newspaper used Giggs as the bait for a special report on privacy laws:

The Scottish newspaper, which the Guardian cannot name for legal reasons, devoted its front page to a large picture of the footballer’s face, with a black band across his eyes and the word “censored” in capital letters. The player is easily recognisable.

Below the picture is the text: “Everyone knows that this is the footballer accused of using the courts to keep allegations of a sexual affair secret. But we weren’t supposed to tell you that …”

Politicians have also taken the opportunity to question current privacy law, particularly John Hemming, the MP for Birmingham Yardley.

To the condemnation of some of his colleagues, Hemming, who has been campaigning on the issue, exercised parliamentary privilege to identify the star at the centre of the injunction just minutes after the high court refused to lift a ban on naming the sportsman, who is said to have had a relationship with Imogen Thomas, the former Big Brother contestant.

“With about 75,000 people having named Ryan Giggs on Twitter, it’s obviously impractical to imprison them all,” Hemming said.

The circumstances of this case may seem frivolous, but they get at larger issues about freedom of speech.

The New York Times writes:

And while a debate centering on an athlete’s love life might not seem to be the most pressing example of free speech online, there are broader and more urgent implications, analysts said.

“If you step back, that same sort of protection is really vital to have in place when you’re talking about the individuals involved in a revolution or a social movement like the Arab Spring,” said Thomas R. Burke, a chairman of the media law practice at the firm Davis Wright Tremaine.

Whatever the higher ideals brought out by the controversy, it’s also been good for Twitter’s traffic, according to the BBC:

Obviously the San Francisco-based site did not set out to be at the centre of a British media firestorm. But the result, according to some figures I’ve been shown, has been a big surge in traffic.

Experian Hitwise, which gets its data from internet service providers, says UK traffic to Twitter’s website hit a new high on Saturday, as a footballer’s attempts to use the courts to identify people behind various tweets dominated the headlines. The traffic was 22% higher than the previous day.

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