Twitterers across the world colored their avatars green to show support for protesters who took to Iran's streets after the country's disputed elections earlier this year. Users of the micro-blogging site might now consider overlaying their avatars with a film of sludge brown as a mark of their spontaneous, collective action to help undermine an attempt by the international oil trader Trafigura to gag a British newspaper's reporting on a toxic-dumping case.
Trafigura's legal representatives, the London-based law firm Carter-Ruck, had obtained a secret injunction in September to prevent the Guardian from revealing the existence of a report commissioned by the oil trader about the alleged 2006 dumping of toxic waste off the Ivory Coast by a ship chartered by the company. The lawyers then tried to stop the Guardian from telling its readers about a written question lodged in Parliament this week by Paul Farrelly, a Labour MP. His question mentioned both the secret injunction and the report.
"The Guardian is prevented from identifying the MP who has asked the question, what the question is, which minister might answer for it or where the question is to be found," wrote the Guardian's David Leigh in a historically obscure front-page article on Tuesday. "The Guardian is also forbidden from telling its readers why the paper is prevented for the first time in memory from reporting parliament."
Trafigura and Carter-Ruck did not take into account the power of Twitterers. By dawn in Britain, the words Trafigura, Carter-Ruck and Guardian, often accompanied by the # sign that enables Twitter users to click through to collected tweets on a tagged subject, began to crop up on the site, elbowing their way into the top-10 trending topics by midmorning. "What is Trafigura anyway????" wondered 17-year-old @ClaireMacIsaac. An immediate response came from @iannutt, helpfully directing her to an earlier Guardian story that detailed Trafigura's involvement in what the newspaper described as "one of the worst pollution disasters of recent history" and the company's offer of compensation to 31,000 Africans who claimed to have been injured by the toxic waste.
By no means did everyone involved in tweeting and retweeting the Trafigura-related messages know precisely what the story was about, but some tweets contained links to websites that provided pieces of the puzzle. By lunchtime, the text of Farrelly's question had been widely circulated. Bloggers also supplied their interpretations of events. The comedian and avid Twitterer Stephen Fry galvanized his more than 800,000 followers into action with the following tweet containing links to two brief online reports of the legal battle: "Outrageous gagging order. It's in reference to the Trafigura oil dumping scandal. Grotesque and squalid."
At this stage, the Guardian was still unable to name Trafigura or shed further light on the kerfuffle, but the paper's editor, Alan Rusbridger (@arusbridger), continued to lob his own carefully crafted tweets into the mix. "#Guardian hoping to get into court today to challenge ban by #carter-ruck on reporting parliament. Watch this space," he posted. He informed the Twitterverse that a court hearing was set for the afternoon. Then came two jubilant tweets: "Victory! #CarterRuck caves-in. No #Guardian court hearing. Media can now report Paul Farrelly's PQ about #Trafigura. More soon on Guardian." And "Thanks to Twitter/all tweeters for fantastic support over past 16 hours! Great victory for free speech. #guardian #trafigura #carterRuck."
A victory for Twitter? Not entirely, says Stephen Shotnes, a media-law specialist with the London law firm Simons Muirhead & Burton. "It's been enshrined in our law for 300 years that there's freedom of reporting of parliamentary proceedings. I would like to think that what would have happened is that the Guardian would have trotted off to court today and the injunction would have been lifted anyway. The likely impact of Twitter was to speed up that process," he says.
Shotnes points out that the effectiveness of gagging orders has been eroding for years, pointing to the banning of a book called Spycatcher, written by former British secret agent Peter Wright, in Britain in 1985. "The book went on sale in America and in Australia, and everybody was getting their friends to bring books back," he says. "Then it got to the point when you could injunct a newspaper, but you could still read the story about the celebrity on the website of a foreign paper. Now stuff can be communicated left, right and center. Half the people it's being communicated by aren't even in the jurisdiction. How are you going to effectively prevent that?"
That's a question to trouble legislators and people with secrets to hide everywhere. But there's one clear lesson from the strange case of Twitter and the Guardian vs. Trafigura and Carter-Ruck. Trying to suppress information in the age of social media is like trying to put out a forest fire with a garden hose.