Twitter has been credited with helping to organise political protests and shine a light on abuses around the world. At the same time, the ubiquitous service has been criticised for disrespecting the sanctity of once-private halls of deliberation — whether a criminal jury’s chambers or an NBA locker room.

In the rarest of cases, apparently, Twitter can do both. That is the view of the Editor of The Guardian in London, Alan Rusbridger, who, after prevailing in a legal fight over the publication of secret documents, wrote that “the Twittersphere blew away conventional efforts to buy silence,” as a headline on his column put it.

Last month, a British judge ruled that material obtained by Guardian journalists about a multinational corporation had to be kept secret. Unlike other such injunctions, however, the “gag order” applied to the existence of the injunction itself. That is, The Guardian was forbidden to report that it had been gagged.

Thus, we have a Kafka-esque experience that, fittingly, has been imposed an unknown number of times by the courts, according to the British newspapers.

The documents involved in the superinjunction could not have been more serious.

In August 2006, an independent shipping company, Trafigura, paid a local operator in Ivory Coast to dispose of waste from the treatment of low-quality gasoline. The operator dumped about 400 tonnes of the “slops” — a mixture of petrochemical waste and caustic soda — in open landfills around a large Ivorian city, Abidjan.

In the weeks afterward, according to a New York Times account from the time, 85,000 people sought medical attention, “paralysing the fragile health care system in a country divided and impoverished by civil war”. Eight died from exposure to the waste, the article reported.

In 2007, Trafigura paid the Ivory Coast government about $225 million related to those events, without admitting liability. And last month, the company settled a class-action lawsuit in Britain on behalf of 30,000 Ivory Coast residents by agreeing to pay $1,500 a person while asserting “that it did not foresee, and could not have foreseen, the reprehensible acts” of its contractor.

Given the legally charged conditions, a preliminary scientific analysis of what might have been dumped — ordered by Trafigura’s lawyers — could have significant ramifications. And when a copy of that analysis fell into the hands of a reporter for The Guardian, Trafigura asked a judge to protect it, saying it was a confidential communication with lawyers for the company. Furthermore, Trafigura argued, any statements the report contained had been superseded by later, more reliable testing.

The superinjunction was issued on September 11. “Presumably the reason for this expansive intrusion into liberty is the theory that in the Internet era any clue to the origin of information will lead to the information becoming available and easily accessed,” James Edelman, a media law expert at Oxford University, wrote in an e-mail message.

The leak

Even with the superinjunction, the report appeared on the whistle-blower website Wikileaks three days after the injunction. Last week, a Member of Parliament asked a question about the case and, by mentioning the Trafigura scientific report, forced a legal crisis of sorts. The court order ran against the British tradition that what is spoken in Parliament is beyond censorship.

Sparked by a teasing article in The Guardian about the newspaper’s being prevented from identifying the Member of Parliament— and Mr. Rusbridger’s tweet about it — readers discovered the question on a government website and set about broadcasting it on the Internet.

In addition to using Twitter, these sympathetic readers used a new tool from Google — SideWiki — to post comments alluding to the controversy on the websites of Trafigura and its law firm, Carter-Ruck. Furthermore, Wikipedia, with its main servers safely sitting in the United States, freely linked to Wikileaks, giving coverage that was more comprehensive than anything a British news consumer could find.

In the face of the online campaign, Trafigura agreed to allow The Guardian to report on the parliamentary question, but insisted that the documents remain enjoined. That led to some Twitter trash-talking, including calls for civil disobedience by British journalists, asking them to re-tweet (RT) its link to the report. The Guardian’s technology Editor, Charles Arthur, wrote early Friday morning, “Oh Wikileaks, I would so love to RT you, and would get into so much trouble if I did.”

On Friday night, Trafigura relented on the release of the report, simultaneously issuing a statement from the managing director of the testing company, who said that it was an “initial desktop study” and that he now agreed with the conclusion that the dumping “could at worst have caused a range of short term low level flu like symptoms and anxiety”.

There is a danger in overpraising a tool like Twitter at the expense of the words it amplifies — in essence, extolling the chisel rather than Michelangelo. But last week’s events show that a variety of Internet projects, including Twitter, are making it harder for the traditional gatekeepers to control of the flow of information.

Certainly, The Guardian was in full celebratory mode last week. “Twitter’s detractors are used to sneering that nothing of value can be said in 140 characters,” Mr. Rusbridger wrote about his initial tweet. “My 104 characters did just fine.” — © 2009 The New York Times News Service

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