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Trial by Twitter

Online this month, we have been playing by our own rules. On the evening of Monday 12 October, "#Trafigura" began trending on Twitter. The rules (in this case, England's increasingly worrying libel laws) were preventing the Guardian reporting parliamentary proceedings. The paper thought this broke another set of rules, namely "privileges guaranteeing free speech established under the 1688 Bill of Rights". Picking up where lawyers at Carter-Ruck had forced the paper to leave off, twitterers began to spread the censored news themselves.

By noon the next day, information that the oil traders Trafigura had sought to suppress had conformed to another rule - the "Streisand effect" (after an attempt by the singer to remove an aerial photograph of her home from the public domain which backfired spectacularly). Thousands of users who would usually have ignored an exposé on the subject of toxic dumping in Côte d'Ivoire looked up a damning report hosted on the whistleblowing website Wikileaks. "Thank you Twitter for alerting me," wrote one user. "Would have completely missed this otherwise".

If UK media pundits saw any similarity between this victory for free speech and last year's outing of Baby P's full name on social networking sites,
they didn't mention it. And if Twitter's owners felt any nerves about dipping their toe in the cesspool that is English libel law, they didn't show it. Where the rules don't work, it seems fine to rely on instinct and the largesse of US corporations to help break them.

Later in the week, leading UK twitterers channelled an army of complainants to online advertisers whose products appeared next to an ill-judged and homophobic Daily Mail piece by Jan Moir on the death of Stephen Gately. Rather than go to the editor with their complaints, they played by another set of rules: they went for the paper's bottom line. Soon, M&S, Nestlé, Kodak and National Express had pulled their advertising and Twitter claimed another victory.

So far, so good. But whether these are the foundations upon which we wish to build a new set of rules for a new age, I'm not so sure. I can't help wondering how far we will travel hand in hand with corporate conscience down the road of digital free speech before one of us chooses to pull away.

Becky Hogge is a writer and technologist. She was formerly the technology director of award-winning current affairs website openDemocracy.net, and Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, a grassroots digital civil liberties organisation.

This article first appeared in the 26 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, New York / London