Technology

Is the web waging war on super-injunctions?

Man on computer in Germany
Image caption Can super-injunctions ever stop information spreading online?

After an injunction was made banning the release of the name of a Premier League footballer and details of his personal life, rumours and names appeared on the web within hours. But it is not the first time that court orders promising privacy have been broken on the internet.

In the papers recently, a lot has been made of so-called "super-injunctions", where even the fact that an injunction has been granted, or the name of the person applying for it, must be kept secret.

Injunctions have allowed entertainers, sport stars, actors and many more to protect what they see as their right to privacy from the press.

And this has left many in traditional media, from The Guardian and The Daily Mail to The Sun, furious about what they can, and what they cannot, report.

But on the internet, especially on social media, rumours about who the proceedings could be about circle and grow without any fear of legal reprisal.

Just the simple use of a search engine often brings back hundreds of results, each reporting (though unconfirmed) they know who the person is and naming the identity of those guarded by law.

"For most of recorded history, people have had surprisingly little privacy," says Nigel Inkster, former director for operations and intelligence at the British Secret Intelligence Service.

"What we had may have reached its apogee during the last wave of pre-internet urbanisation. And I certainly don't think secrecy is dead because of the internet."

The paradoxical ideas of free speech and a right to privacy as outlined in the Human Rights Act have been extensively reported. But the difference between secrecy and privacy is a small, but important, one.

Privacy is the idea that certain things should rightfully be kept from others. With secrecy, it is implied that the information, often easily discovered, is deliberately held from public view.

Image caption Take That's Howard Donald failed to stop a super-injunction being lifted

And this issue of secrecy in comparison to freedom of speech is one that gets much more complicated when looking at the web. It seems the right to privacy remains, at least to a certain extent, but the right to secrecy is being challenged.

There are numerous examples of the web community fighting against those seeking privacy. Many, ironically, using anonymity to conceal their own identity to avoid detection.

This can be shown not only with super-injunctions but with the leaking of documents, as shown during the Wikileaks scandal.

"It's harder than ever for the powerful to control what people read, see and hear," says writer and campaigner Heather Brooke, who was involved with the Wikileaks releases at the Guardian.

"Technology gives people the ability to band together and challenge authority in ways that were previously impossible.

"The powerful have long spied upon citizens - surveillance - as a means of control, but now citizens are turning their collected eyes back upon the powerful - so Sousveillance."

But this is not universally agreed as a good thing. What was once village tittle-tattle is now recorded online forever.

In the case of discussing the super-injunction, each person on a blog naming names could be in contempt of court.

The conversations had online will be recorded in perpetuity and this information - at least potentially - could be used against you.

"Information about you is power over you, as every blackmailer, taxman, or village gossip knows," says Guy Herbert, general secretary of NO 2 ID, the campaign against the database state.

"Information can be found, transmitted, matched and re-matched faster than we can grasp. That is changing the distribution of power, yes, but also its nature and quantity.

Image caption The news of someone's death travels fast on social networks - whether it's true or not

"Privacy and confidentiality aren't well understood and aren't well protected - either in law or moral status - because in the past they haven't needed to be.

"Personal intuitions about sharing personal information - even our intuitions about what is personal - are formed by our sense of the limits of personal acquaintance."

Critics of this "absolute information" say that without secrets, there can be no effective government, no effective innovation or entrepreneurship or any private life at all.

In this horizon of a world where everything is digital, countless reports comparing the world to a dystopian world described in George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty Four.

"We risk the continued erosion of trust in society if we abandon the importance of a duty of confidence, whether to the family, our employer or the State," says Sir David Omand, a former security and intelligence co-ordinator at the Cabinet Office.

But beyond a duty of confidence, much has been made of the numerous cases where web reports prove to be false.

Social networks can whip up a storm in a matter of minutes, sometimes without the story having even a hint of truth. For example, users of Twitter have announced the deaths of countless celebrities who were still very much alive.

"Access to the internet does not confer the power of wisdom," says Sir David.

"It is filled with misinformation, and downright wrong information. The two largest consumers of broadband are internet porn and online games.

"The blogosphere reveals a world of old media stories, conspiracy theories, celebrity froth and personal emotional rants.

"The problem is too much information."

If used correctly, the web is believed to be a great leveller. If it is not, then many see it as a tool used for oppression.

"We have the tools for a new type of democracy but the same technology can be used for a new type of totalitarianism," says Brooke.

"Two sides are battling to determine the world's future. On one side, the freedom fundamentalists and democracy campaigners; on the other governments, authoritarians and the military.

"What happens in the next five years will define the future of democracy for the next century and beyond. This is nothing less than a revolution and all revolutions create fear and uncertainty as one age makes way for another."

And what happens to those seeking protection from injunctions in the near future is equally as uncertain - in this era of "promiscuous connectivity", as Nigel Inkster perhaps fittingly calls it, secrets appear to be all the harder to keep.

Hear more on The World Tonight on Easter Monday on BBC Radio 4.

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