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Twitterverse outs companies that gagged UK press

LONDON - The power of Twitter to spread news despite curbs on mainstream media was shown today when law firm Carter Ruck and its obscure oil trading firm client Trafigura were pushed to the top of the microblogging site's trending topics list.

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Twitter users pushed the two firms into the limelight after a highly unusual gagging order was imposed on The Guardian to stop it reporting Parliamentary proceedings.

Until just before 1pm today, The Guardian was prevented from revealing anything about the gagging order except that it involved leading libel lawyers Carter-Ruck.

However, details of the order spread on Twitter throughout the morning in a mix of protest messages, people asking what was going on, and retweets.

Traffic had been driven by a tweet by Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger about going to court this afternoon to challenge the gagging order. It was amplified by comments from other users, including well-followed celebrity Stephen Fry.

At 1pm today Trafigura was the top trending topic on the site, which is estimated to have around 50m global users. Between 12.45pm and 1pm the name was mentioned in just over 3,000 tweets.

Just before 1pm Carter-Ruck dropped its attempt to prevent the media reporting Parliamentary proceedings.

The retreat has meant the newspaper has now been able to report that in Parliament yesterday Labour MP Paul Farelly put a question about the existence of a media injunction obtained by Carter-Ruck and Trafigura to the justice secretary Jack Straw.

The question was:

    "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."

In September Trafigura paid out £30m to thousands of Africans who had brought a class action lawsuit over pollution deposited by a ship hired by the company.

The episode shows how it is more difficult to stop information spreading on blogs and social media than to prevent media corporations reporting it. But, according to freelance journalist Alex Massie in a blog for The Spectator, it also shows how Britain's libel laws are an "abusive system" that need to be overhauled.

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