Monday, 27 June 2011

On the internet, everyone has got a name

What’s in a name?
If you want to circumvent a so-called ‘super-injection’ - a UK gagging order to prevent certain information from becoming public - it seems the internet has become the place to be. Many legal experts, judges and lawmakers are struggling with this dilemma after a confusing month in which a former model and a well-known football player made the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

On 29 May, The Sunday Times reported that only six hours after football player Ryan Giggs had obtained a super injection - to prevent his extra-marital affair from becoming public - a bank worker named James Webley had tweeted ‘so if Ryan Giggs wanted to cover up a hypothetical affair with Big Brother’s Imogen Thomas would that be a super-injunction or a regular one’. Within hours, this was ‘re-tweeted’ by thousands and the footballer’s name was out.

Theoretically, Webley can be accused of contempt of court. He could be fined, his assets seized or even face jail time, but more than seven weeks after he tweeted his message, on 14 April, officers have still not knocked on his door and experts believe it is not likely that is going to happen. Thousands of Twitter users - among them famous names like journalist Piers Morgan and singer Boy George - have mentioned the footballer in their online messages and it would be an impossible task to prosecute them all. On top of that, Member of Parliament John Hemming mentioned Giggs in Parliament and it did not really come as a surprise when Prime Minister Cameron said he felt ‘uneasy’ about super-injunctions and believed judges were developing a privacy law without Parliament's say so.

But it works both ways. While hiding your dirty laundry might have become nearly impossible, remaining anonymous on the net is also increasingly difficult. The Superior Court of California recently forced Twitter to hand over the personal details of a number of its account holders who had allegedly posted libellous statements about South Tyneside Council. The UK Council went to the California Court - who has jurisdiction over US-based Twitter - to find out who was behind an account called ‘Mr Monkey’.

Apart from the question whether tax money should be spent on defending the reputation of a few local councillors, the ruling has paved the way for many from outside the US to identify anonymous bloggers. Experts believe this ruling can have huge implications for users of social networking sites and many wonder whether this verdict signals the end of anonymous blogging, because if it works with Twitter, why not with (US-based) Facebook, Blogspot, MySpace or any other website where people can publish public messages on a daily basis under a fake name. Experts fear many US lawyers will try to find out the names behind anonymous posts so they can sue the bloggers on a ‘no win, no fee’ basis. 

When the internet emerged, many praised - and feared - the new medium for the fact that on the web ‘no one knows who or where you are’. This no longer seems to apply. Whether you are a famous ‘adulterous’ footballer or just a critical voter in a sleepy town, everyone’s got a name.

Michiel Willems, 2011. Published previously in the June issue of a London based magazine. Copyrights apply at all times. Image 1: Image 2: