New rules rule, okay?

This week’s Net Report went live today. Unedited copy below, or read the final version here.

Online this month, we have mostly been playing by our own rules.

On the evening of Monday 12 October, “#Trafigura” began trending on Twitter. The rules (in this case, England’s increasingly worrying libel laws) were preventing the Guardian from reporting the doings of Parliament. The Guardian was concerned that this broke another set of rules, namely “privileges guaranteeing free speech established under the 1688 Bill of Rights”. Picking up where Carter Ruck had forced the web’s favourite newspaper to leave off, Twitterers began to spread the censored news themselves.

By noon the next day information that Trafigura had sought to suppress had conformed to another rule – the Streisand effect, sending thousands of users who would most likely have ignored a Guardian exposé on the subject of toxic dumping in Nigeria to a damning report that had been hosted on the whilstleblowing website Wikileaks since 13 September. Wrote one user “Thank you Twitter for alerting me to Trafigura. Would have completely missed this otherwise.

If the UK’s media pundits saw any similarity between this victory for free speech and last year’s outing on Facebook and other social networking sites of Baby P’s full name, also against the will of the courts, they didn’t mention it. And if Twitter’s owners felt any nerves about stretching their toes across the Atlantic to dip them in the cess pool that is English libel law, they didn’t show it. Where the rules don’t work, it seems fine to rely on instinct and the largesse of US corporations to help us break them.

Later in the week key UK Twitterers channelled an army of complainants to online advertisers whose products appeared next to an ill-judged and possibly homophobic piece by Jan Moir on the death of Steven Gately. Rather than go to the editor with their complaints, they played by another set of rules: they went for the newspaper’s bottom line. Soon, Marks & Spencer, Nestle, Kodak and National Express had pulled their advertising and Twitter had claimed another victory.

So far, so good. But as to whether these are the foundations upon which we wish to build a new set of rules for a new age, I’m not so sure. I can’t help wondering how far we will travel hand in hand with corporate conscience down the road marked digital free speech, before one of us chooses to pull away.

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