Mathematics, psychology and sociology, philosophy.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Transparent Society, Foretold. Part III - The Tweetbowl

2011 May 31st
III. The Tweetbowl

... Because of a quirk of early communications technology, a small group of New Hampshire girls, including me, came of age on a primitive computer network — the Internet before the Internet.    -- Virginia Heffernan (see link [3])

I went to Dartmouth in the early 1980's, during the peak of XCALIBER, an online chatroom that typically linked 15 to 30 students at any time (day or night), including many people at other nearly schools. I introduced a friend to "the con", as we called it, where she soon met her future husband, a student at a distant school. I was skeptical of this new social medium[3] -- it's too easy to cheat at the Turing test -- but my friend's experience and those of many others in my circle made it clear that digital social networking would be powerful and effective.[1]
In part II, I described the Fishman Affidavit and Streisand effect, two examples of the perverse unintended consequences of trying to get between people and their information. In both of those cases, the information wasn't even of much importance or value to the thousands of people who helped spread it. But those were just warm-up acts.
With the advent of online social networking, and the new communications networks that come with it, truly important things can become the subject of grassroots political action -- such as diplomatic secrets or the government of Egypt. But these social networks have also brought us the fishbowl of Asimov's The_Dead_Past.
Celebrities are the pioneers of life in a fishbowl. Few people deserve the type of suffering that results from constant scrutiny (after, probably, leading a "normal" life for many earlier years of non-fame), and privacy laws such as those in the UK aim to help prevent this type of suffering[4].
Persuant to this end, the court provides a service, (to any citizen or corporation who can pay the price), of granting a sort of individual custom-tailored seditious libel protection. This service, a form of court order called a Superinjunction, orders someone (typically the entire population of the U.K. save the Members of Parliament) from talking about something, and furthermore, it orders them not to talk about the superinjunction. It is a gag-order, with a gag-order on the existence of the gag-order. A sort of Double-Secret Probation for the Red top tabloid press, if you will.
Unfortunately for the celebrities, and the courts, and for us, depending on where you stand and how it all plays out when one of these court orders is enacted, it happens to go directly against one of the sole remaining provisions of the Magna Carta, which states[2]:
"We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right."
Here is a good summary (on YouTube) of a serious incident from two years ago: the Trafigura affair, from the BBC programme "Have I Got News For You".

A celebrity decided to use this form of "superinjunction" after being blackmailed by a mistress who had no fears or misgivings about making the affair public. Some users of Twitter apparently felt this was a problem, and promptly published the details (well really, just the names, which was all they had to). The vast majority of retweets were positive, i.e. anti-superinjunction, and helped ensure that everyone in the UK know the identity of He-who-cannot-not-be-named.[5] This left the celebrity and his lawyers in the amusing position of having to sue Twitter, but unable to do so without revealing his identity. You'll find it all if you search for "twitter super injunction affair", if you really care.
Celebrity affairs do not really constitute an urgent need of the public good, but something like the Trafigura affair most probably does. As David Cameron said just before I began this three-part article,
The law and the practice has got to catch up with how people consume media today.
Perhaps it is the "old world order" of the 1950's that is unsustainable, in the light of the emerging digital community.


[1] Dartmouth also had BlitzMail, which brought a form of instant messaging for nearly everyone on campus due to its widespread adoption and ease of use. This was just part of an overall strategy Dartmouth had already been following for 15 or 20 years prior to my arrival. Computer use was a requirement in the freshman math class, and ease of use was the primary design criterion of every aspect of the computers at Dartmouth.

[2] From Commons Debates in Westminster Hall, the 17th March 2011 Backbench Business (skip down to "17 Mar 2011 : Column 140WH")

[3] Most people do just fine balancing the risks and freedoms afforded by chatrooms. Virginia Heffernan gives a great account of her experiences with XCALIBER in her New York Times column My Wired Youth, 2008 Feb 3.

[4] The UK court actions in question limit self-expression as provided by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, when such expression would interfere with "the reputation or the rights of others", or for various reasons that are in the greater public interest.

[5] He-Who-Cannot-Be-Named: This great nickname invoking Lord Voldemort is attributed to Forbes blogger Kashmir Hill