Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Injunctions, and privacy, and twitter, oh my!

We're at an interesting crossroads in our public social development. Twitter, pub or bar for the internet masses, is gaining more and more attention for the "Civil disobedience" of breaking injunctions, and with it an interesting paradox over which human right is more important is being fought out.

Which is more important, our right to say what we want (within legal boundaries) or to have a life that is free from prying eyes? I cannot say that I feel the right to say what we like is more important, myself, I know that most people that are so eagerly flouting the injunction laws might feel a whole lot differently about the subject if we were to turn on them and start publishing details about their every day life.

But then the question about the whole Imogen Thomas affair was never really about the privacy of just one individual. It's perfectly acceptable for one person to wish to keep their life private, but does that mean they have a veto over that other party ever expressing themselves about it, in however much detail they want? Surely there must be something that those, certainly feminists, must feel leaves quite a sour taste when one person, a man, can control the voice of another because they put their priority first?

Of course, don't believe for a second I think this is about gender politics, it's the privilege of the rich and the powerful that is at play here. Equally, however, those people being rich or powerful (or both) doesn't mean they don't have the same rights as everyone else. I am not one that subscribes to the idea that "you must expect it" if you become famous.

It is the focusing on twitter aspect of the whole situation that is most intriguing though. Prosecutions for those that flaunt the law? Unworkable as far as I can see (or hope). Speculation and rumour should never be treated as anything more than that. If there are those posting evidential proof of something then they are clearly breaking the law when it comes to injunctions such as the one involved in the Imogen Thomas case. Simply blurting out a rumour (however true it is known to be, or ends up being) in 140 characters or less is a very different matter.

I call it the pub/bar for the masses for a reason, for all that users and commentators alike hold Twitter up as a bastion of free speech, it is nothing more than a (large) public area. We all enter the building as we log in, we take up our seats with those we enjoy the company of, and sometimes we overhear things from the table behind us. Sometimes someone just has to say something that means everyone around hears.

So, when do we regulate and legislate against public and social gathering? By the words spoken in the last month we would assume that were it possible the courts would rather that they had ears in every conversation in the pub, every bus stop chat, every tea-break room. For that is what is being assumed here...because the internet is so documentable, able to be logged and catalogued, evidence preserved so easily... that rumour is unacceptable, and some would therefore say human nature is unacceptable. It's an affront to our freedom of association at the end of the day, with courts saying individual privacy should be upheld at any achievable length of manipulating the boundaries of association between individuals.

And it is for that reason that I ultimately disapprove with this witch hunt against twitter users. Not because I believe that they have a right to pry, to abandon someone else's right to privacy, but because the right for them to speculate and to feel free to speculate with one another is the most important aspect of a free society. A society where we do not feel that we can talk amongst one another freely, about subjects we wish, even in an environment where others may be able to overhear us, is a terrifying prospect of authoritarian proportions.

There is a fine balance to be found, if it can ever be found, to allowing that "tittle tattle" while also allowing those that value their privacy recourse to punish those that have gone too far...but it can never be expense of collective freedom.