When the web makes a fool of censorship
There’s a big crack in the dam of official censorship today. An attempt by one of Britain’s most formidable law firms to stop media coverage of one of its clients backfired spectacularly when the information it was seeking to suppress was distributed around the internet to millions of users in a matter of hours.
In what will become a case study for how the internet has changed the balance of power in the control of information, solicitors Carter-Ruck and their client Trafigura were forced to drop an attempt to gag media coverage of an 87-word parliamentary question about the alleged dumping of toxic waste off Ivory Coast.
The question was on the public record and available on the internet yet The Guardian was prevented from reporting the question, who asked it, or why it was being gagged.
Reports were circulated through social networks, and Trafigura and CarterRuck quickly became trending topics on Twitter. The information was everywhere. The gag order had become a joke.
Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger thanked Twitter users for their support after public anger over the gag order spread online. MPs were also seeking an emergency debate on the matter in the House of Commons.
There’s a comprehensive account, with more links, of what happened here. That article states:
Campaigning environmental journalist at the Guardian, George Monbiot commented that it’s not surprising that most of the British media wouldn’t touch it with a bargepole: “The reason isn’t hard to divine: Trafigura has been throwing legal threats around like confetti.”
He threw in a frightening thought:
“How many Trafiguras have got away with it by frightening critics away with Britain’s libel laws?
“These iniquitous, outdated laws are a threat to democracy, a threat to society, a threat to the environment and public health. They must be repealed.”
There has been some progress with the reform of Australian libel laws in recent years but there are still many things that don’t get a public airing because of the fears - or threats - of legal action.
How many Australian scandals have been kept under wraps because of the libel laws? There are certainly many things that have not been made public because of intervention in Freedom of Information requests.
Anyway, the message to powerful interests from the extraordinary events overnight is simple. If you want to keep secrets, you’ve got to keep them off the internet. And it’s not always easy.
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