This post was originally published at Reuters Great Debate
Solicitors Carter-Ruck have backed down on the terms of an injunction they had been granted by the High Court preventing the Guardian newspaper from reporting a parliamentary question by Newcastle-under-Lyme MP and former journalist Paul Farrelly.
This has been seen — rightly — as a victory for free expression, and a demonstration of the amazing power of the web in the face of attempted censorship. Once the Guardian had published its slightly cryptic story on its website last night, containing such tantalising phrases as: “Legal obstacles, which cannot be identified, involve proceedings, which cannot be mentioned, on behalf of a client who must remain secret”, it was inevitable that people would go searching. Within hours, the Internet was alive with speculation, links to leaked documents, and republication of cached articles. At one point on Tuesday morning, phrases relating to the case constituted four of Twitter’s top ten “trending topics” — a scarcely believable profile for a story that, technically, no one was supposed to be talking about.
Carter-Ruck seem not to have noticed the mindset of an increasing number of web users: once we are told we can’t know something, modern web users will set about finding out about it with a gleeful determination — and more often than not with neither the cautiousness nor the proprietary attitude to information that can slow down “traditional” reporting.
The Streisand Effect — whereby attempts to censor information end up ensuring the information is only spread more widely, is something that lawyers and judges are going to have to figure out. The strong libertarian culture of the Internet quite simply means that you cannot get away with telling people what to do, and what to read, while surfing. Today’s Twitter triumph is more a victory for the culture of online social networking than it is for the technology.
And an important victory it is. What was at stake here was not merely a newspaper’s right to tell a story, but the very principal of open democracy: if newspapers and other media cannot report everyday parliamentary proceedings without fear of the courts, it is not just the journalism industry that suffers: it is the common citizen’s ability to participate in, and scrutinise, politics.
Update: Read the letter Index on Censorship sent to the courts in support of the Guardian here