Social media is looking more and more like the three bears’ porridge in the Goldilocks story.
Sometimes it’s too hot; sometimes it’s too cold. But when it comes to protecting free speech rights, while simultaneously enforcing privacy rights, it seems no one can get the temperature just right.
Right across Europe, from Budapest, to Paris and London, everyone’s waking up to one simple fact.
Social media tools like Facebook – and above all Twitter – have blown a massive hole in jurisprudence built up over centuries through privacy laws, media regulation and constitutional rights to free expression.
In the Middle East, Twitter may be praised as a harbinger of democracy fueling the Arab spring uprisings. But here in Europe the very same service is being damned as a challenge to the rule of law and order.
Where once the established media had power and responsibility, the view from established quarters is that social media is now gaining a bad reputation for power without responsibility.
The laws protecting the individual against harassment by over-zealous media hounds were long based upon one basic principle: the courts could always seize the printing presses, TV cameras or transmitters and so bankrupt any wayward news organisations before they caused real upsets to the status quo.
But you can’t bankrupt a nameless army of millions of tweeters. You can’t legislate that Twitter or Facebook are no longer allowed to be mentioned on the public airwaves. Actually you can, if you’re French.
France has just banned all French media from mentioning Facebook or Twitter unless a news story is specifically about either social networking site.
The straw that broke the camel’s back was Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s dramatic ouster from the IMF. DSK’s wife Anne Sinclair has become a national symbol of dignified French womanhood, fighting the rising global tide of prurience and malicious gossip.
At a time when French media organisations showed more than extraordinary restraint in reporting the painful details, news about DSK in France was substantially fueled by social networking sites.
So the French legal system is fighting back against Facebook and Twitter in its own inimitable Gallic fashion. On May 27th, France’s broadcasting standards authority banned news organisations from making any generic mention of the two social media giants.
The legislation governing the ruling isn’t about privacy – it’s a 1992 law controlling product placement and advertising in the media. But just as they finally got Al Capone on tax evasion, the intent is clear.
So no French TV host is now allowed to say: “Follow us on Twitter.” At the Matignon, it seems, the intention is to abolish Twitter with one stroke of the pen.
Traditionally, French people have regarded public life as private business, and were appalled at the torrent of what they saw as sensationalist international interest about DSK’s essentially private affairs. French presidents have always been above criticism, and France’s Press Law of 1881 still punishes editors for “outraging public morals” or “insulting high-ranking public officials.”
This caused Anglo-Saxon media organisations such as the Guardian to describe French newsmen and media organisations timid and deferential.
French legal commentators have plenty to clarify, as they insist their country respects trial in the courts, not in the media. In French law, there is no “public interest” which over-rides the privacy of public officials under scrutiny. And any plaintiff can sue in the courts for retrieval of pictures published without authorisation.
France has made numerous attempts to control the internet and legislate away inconvenient international trends. In May, President Nicholas Sarkozy summed an ‘eG8’ conference of great and good to try and regulate the internet.
Needless to say he failed – and France will continue to grapple with the free speech/privacy rights debate unleashed right across Europe by Twitter’s new power.
Britain may be home of the world’s most sensationalist popular press and a legal system that condones titillating disclosures where proven to be in the “public interest.”
But just as in France, rattled authorities are suddenly running up the battle-flag against Twitter.
Britain’s chief law official, Attorney General Dominic Grieve told the BBC June 7th he would protect the “rule of law” by taking legal action against Twitter users and imposing heavy fines on those who breach privacy injunctions.
Cooling down Britain’s army of over-zealous tweeters has become a top priority for UK officialdom in recent weeks.
In May, thousands of Twitter users violated a court-mandated “super-injunction” banning any mention of the marital infidelities of Manchester United soccer player Ryan Giggs. So many people flouted the ban, that eventually the case was raised in London’s parliament.
In an unrelated incident, a UK local government body won an injunction in the California courts, forcing Twitter to hand over names of British tweeters allegedly responsible for defamatory posts about council employees. So now a precedent exists, allowing plaintiffs to get behind those usernames to flush out their wildest critics.
France and Britain may be located at the opposite end of Europe from Hungary, both geographically and figuratively. But the crackdown is happening in Budapest, too. Strict controls were imposed on journalists and media outlets from January 1st. Bloggers and tweeters felt they were being unfairly targeted by a catch-all law that they allege strangles freedom of expression, and held angry marches. Ironically one of the sternest critics of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government was France.
Just like those three bears, European governments are getting their tongues scalded by the over-heated porridge now being served up on social networking sites – and no one’s getting it “just right.”