Fight! Ryan Giggs versus Twitter users

May 30, 2011 § Leave a comment

If you’re intending to leak the identity of a famous celebrity in defiance of a court ruling or suppression order, don’t expect Twitter to defend your right to challenge the law under the guise of freedom of expression.

In what is proving to be a high profile legal case but not without precedent, British lawyers representing Manchester United player Ryan Giggs have taken legal action against Twitter to compel the California-based social media platform to hand over details of tweeters who have defied a privacy injunction preventing the publication of the football star’s identity.

It is the latest flow on effect in a row that has blown up over claims of an affair between the Manchester United veteran and reality television star Imogen Thomas.  Giggs’ lawyers convinced the High Court that a gagging order was necessary to protect the footballer’s privacy and reputation, and on April 14, a privacy injunction was issued.

This has been a red rag to a bull, especially to those angered that the woman in question was being pilloried but a footballer with millions of pounds could employ considerable legal resources to hide his identity. Then there were those simply in love with celebrity gossip but the upshot is that within days his identity was no secret on Twitter.

After a month of Twitter gossip, if there was one speck of doubt left as to the identity of the footballer, British MP David Hemming used parliamentary privilege to open the floodgates for the news media. He named Giggs to highlight the futility of privacy laws when by his estimation 75,000 people on Twitter had already breached the injunction. This allowed journalists to report Giggs, who is married with two children, as the celebrity accused of infidelity although Hemming has been accused of abusing parliamentary privilege.

And as a backdrop to the ensuing and confused media circus, the gagging order remains in place!

It’s all a big legal mess but one that Giggs’ legal team intend to use to make an example of a representative number of those that flouted the injunction, and in a symbolic way claw back some of the privacy ground that has been lost to social media. Central to this strategy is to get Twitter to comply with British privacy and media laws.

Schillings, the firm representing Giggs, is seeking a court order known as a Norwich Pharmacal order that could force Twitter to reveal the name, email address and IP address of a person or persons behind an anonymous account that has attracted over a hundred thousand followers for revealing a list of prominent people who had taken out media bans to keep their affairs secret.

Other tweeters also face the possibility of a legal action for outing Giggs as the player in the Imogen Thomas case. Britain’s Daily Mail has spoken to this tweeter who faces the possibility of being fined, having his assets seized or even going to jail for breaking the cloak of court imposed secrecy.

The social network’s general manager of European operations, Tony Wang, said last week that Twitter would respect British law and that people who used Twitter to break the law would need to defend themselves. In other words, Twitter would not shelter individuals who use anonymity to defy privacy rulings.

Twitter’s legal counsel Alexander Macgillivray later used Twitter to clarify the company’s privacy policy: “Our policy is notify users & we have fought to ensure user rights. Sadly, some more interested in headlines than accuracy.”

One interesting feature of the case is that it is not ground-breaking. Twitter has already complied in this precedent setting case in which an anonymous British man used Twitter to libel a local authority using a series of anonymous Twitter profiles so it would have come as a huge surprise if they were to decide otherwise.

Twitter will also be mindful of a number of considerations. It has plans to open an office in Britain to chase advertising and there’s a reputational risk if it falls foul of British law. It will be concerned about developing its reputation as a mature and responsible business, not an outlaw beyond the territorial jurisdiction of nation states.

But what hasn’t emerged yet is if there will be a user backlash against Twitter.  A public relations consultant and Huffington Post blogger Mario Almonte told SMNZ that it would be bad public relations for Twitter to comply too readily. “It would be a bad PR move for Twitter to immediately comply – it’ll leave a very sour taste. Twitter will need to drag its feet and defend its users’ right to privacy, using whatever arguments it can muster.”

Almonte predicts that Twitter shouldn’t have to fight for too long. “The public backlash against Giggs will be tremendous that – if he is smart – he’ll call off the lawyers. Celebrities behaving badly and having affairs with attractive women – once exposed – need to just grit their teeth and let the feeding frenzy blow over.”

Post script: You may remember the Taiwanese anime news service NMA and their animated rendering of the Tiger Woods story that went viral. Now here’s their take on the Ryan Giggs affair. Same issue, different sports star.



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