A litigation expert has said that the widespread passing on of information by Twitter and Facebook users when it was the subject of a reporting ban could undermine the effectiveness of such injunctions.
A court's decision to ban the newspaper from reporting who had asked a particular question, whom it was about and who might answer it caused shock in media and civil liberties circles. It was seen by many as unusual to block reporting from the place where the public's representatives conduct the business of Government.
The question was tabled by Labour MP Paul Farrelly for it to be answered later in the week by Justice Secretary Jack Straw. It said: "To ask the Secretary of State for Justice what assessment he has made of the effectiveness of legislation to protect (a) whistleblowers and (b) press freedom following the injunctions obtained in the High Court by (i) Barclays and Freshfields solicitors on 19 March 2009 on the publication of internal Barclays reports documenting alleged tax avoidance schemes and (ii) Trafigura and Carter-Ruck solicitors on 11 September 2009 on the publication of the Minton report on the alleged dumping of toxic waste in the Ivory Coast, commissioned by Trafigura."
Twitter users spread the news of the question and the name of the oil-trading company involved, Trafigura. Some were reportedly organising a protest outside the offices of the law firm which asked for the reporting ban, Carter-Ruck.
Carter-Ruck today withdrew its opposition to The Guardian's reporting of its client Trafigura, the paper reported.
Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger posted via his Twitter account "Thanks to Twitter/all tweeters for fantastic support over past 16 hours! Great victory for free speech."
Twitter and Facebook users had published the name of the company at the heart of the controversy before it had withdrawn its legal action. So many had mentioned the issue that Trafigura, Guardian and Carter-Ruck were on Twitter's list of most popular terms by this morning.
Litigation specialist John Mackenzie of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind OUT-LAW.COM, said that the issue raises interesting questions about injunctions in the age of social networking.
"If there is a reporting ban from a court but the information concerned is being published in tweets and status updates by thousands of people, the court and the person whose information was the subject of the injunction have a problem," he said.
"Injunctions against individual sites like Twitter and Facebook, assuming that a court would grant one, are unlikely to be effective as there are millions of blogs and web sites that will host and publish the story. Neither can they practically sue thousands of ordinary people who are passing the information on," he said. "It may be that if enough of a public groundswell of support builds up behind an issue, injunctions lose their power."