Even as British newspapers remained legally gagged, the affair became Britain’s worst-kept secret, inspiring jeers from fans at matches and, ultimately, Giggs’s public naming and shaming in Parliament late last month.
The episode marked the latest challenge by Twitter users to Britain’s privacy laws, a drama that is testing the viability of rules drawn up in an era of old media.
With a barrage of tweets, social-media users are blasting holes in a system that has long shielded Britain’s rich and famous from scandal, leaving the powerful and naughty here quaking in their Gucci loafers. In one assault, a Twitter vigilante last week named names and released the lurid misadventures of a whole new batch of British celebrities and politicians allegedly holding media gag orders.
The challenge has left British judges and wronged parties scrambling for ways to hold new media accountable. Last week, one British town used the California legal system to force San Francisco-based Twitter to release the names of four users who allegedly libeled its council members. And while Giggs’s paramour has confirmed the affair, the soccer star is using the London court system to go after anonymous Twitter users in what may end up being a test case.
“Are you really going to say that someone who has a true claim for protection perfectly well made has to be at the mercy of modern technology?” Igor Judge, head of the English judiciary, told reporters in London. “I’m not giving up on the possibility that people who peddle lies about others through using technology may one day be brought under control, maybe through damages, very substantial damages.”
The debate here is casting a light on what critics call Britain’s excessive privacy laws.
Meant as a tool to defend reputations in the face of an aggressive tabloid press, an injunction effectively prevents libel or infringement of privacy before it happens for those who can afford the legal firepower needed to win one.
They are a public figure’s dream, stopping scandal in its tracks. For instance, if the United States offered similar legal recourse, Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) might have had a case to win an injunction and gag the media from reporting the leak of a compromising photo — that is, if his Twitter account had actually been hacked as he initially claimed. The key is the dissemination of embarrassing information against one’s will. Thus, the fact that he sent out the photo himself probably would have precluded him from winning an injunction, according to British legal experts.
But even in Britain, with new media such as Twitter, that kind of privacy protection is slipping from the grasp of the rich, famous and powerful.