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It’s an unlikely way to begin a legal debate that may point the way toward global free speech rights on the Internet. But a British athlete’s sexual affair has triggered it, and caught in the middle is the pithy social website Twitter and its general counsel, Alexander Macgillivray, who’s been busy tweeting about user rights. The dispute started in secret, when a UK soccer star obtained a so-called “super injunction,” preventing the British media from naming him as the person who had an affair with a reality-TV contestant. Under UK law, the media can’t even report on the injunction itself. Such prior restraints on the media are not allowed in the U.S., absent a showing of a compelling reason like national security. But someone leaked the athlete’s name on Twitter earlier this month: Ryan Giggs, a Manchester United star. The louder British officials complained, the more people (by the tens of thousands) tweeted and joked about it on the Internet. British newspapers reported that Giggs’ London law firm, Schillings, last Friday served Twitter with a court order demanding the identity of the leakers. While not commenting publicly, Schillings has a motto on its website that says, “We protect those in the public eye from unwarranted intrusions into their personal lives.” Twitter declined comment at first. But as word of the incident continued to spread, Macgillivray, Twitter’s GC, broke the silence and began tweeting on Wednesday (he tweets as @amac). “Our policy is notify users & we have fought to ensure user rights. Sadly, some more interested in headlines than accuracy,” said his first tweet, available here. He apparently was referring to a British broadcaster who reported that Twitter’s policy was to turn over the names. A short time later the GC posted a link to a January blog post he co-authored, entitled “The Tweets Must Flow.” It explains how Twitter must obey a valid legal demand for information about a user, but that the company insists on notifying the user first. Macgillivray wrote this article after the U.S. government sought to track down Wikileakers who were using Twitter. The commitment is important, the post explains, so that users can challenge or defend themselves against government requests. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit advocacy group, praised the policy and called on tech companies around the world to “stand with their users” by adopting similar policies when a government comes looking for data. Meanwhile, the privacy versus free speech debate rages on in England. Earlier this week British lawmaker John Hemming became fed up with the brouhaha and identified Giggs by name in a speech in Parliament. Lawmakers are immune from prosecution for what they say in Parliament, but some other members rebuked him. Some Britons have called for Twitter users to be punished, but Hemming said in Parliament, that more than 75,000 people aroundthe world have named Giggs on Twitter, and “it is obviously impracticable to imprison them all.” On the same day, a British judge for the third time refused to lift the injunction. “Should the court buckle every time one of its orders meets widespread disobedience or defiance?” asked High Court Justice David Eady, in an opinion here. Eady answered no, saying in a democratic society the legislature must decide to change unpopular or unenforceable laws. The judge said to lift the gag order could engulf the claimant, in this case Giggs, “in a cruel and destructive media frenzy. Sadly, that may become unavoidable in the society in which we now live but, for the moment, in so far as I am being asked to sanction it, I decline to do so.” But critics and several British newspapers still are attacking the idea of the super injunctions, calling them tools of powerful public figures who want to stop embarrassing facts from being discussed. Other Britons are calling for tighter privacy restrictions on the press. The British attorney-general, meanwhile, told the press that Prime Minister David Cameron is setting up a new committee to look at the use of the controversial injunctions. As calls grow for a fuller debate on privacy versus free speech rights in England, Cameron told a TV reporter, “It is a rather unsustainable situation.”

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