The term Streisand effect denotes a phenomenon whereby an attempt to hide, remove or censor a piece of information backfires and draws even more attention to it.
It was coined by Mike Masnick, founder and CEO of Floor64 and editor of the Techdirt blog, in Since When Is It Illegal To Just Mention A Trademark Online?, published on Wednesday 5th January 2005:
About a year ago, we wrote about the somewhat bizarre case where the Greater Toronto Airport Authority told a silly site that posts photos of urinals (pretty much just for the hell of it) that they couldn’t mention the name of the airport for no clear reason other than that the GTAA didn’t like it. The owners of that site, Urinal.net, have now been approached again by someone who is trying to stop them from posting perfectly legitimate information. In this case, complaint is coming from the Marco Beach Ocean Resort, who is claiming that it’s somehow illegal to use their name on the website. […] How long is it going to take before lawyers realize that the simple act of trying to repress something they don’t like online is likely to make it so that something that most people would never, ever see (like a photo of a urinal in some random beach resort) is now seen by many more people? Let’s call it the Streisand Effect.
Mike Masnick was referring to the lawsuit that the American singer, actress and film director Barbra Streisand (born 1942) brought in 2003 against the California Coastal Records Project, an aerial photographic survey of the California coastline. She asserted that the inclusion of a photograph of her Malibu estate invaded her privacy, violated the “anti-paparazzi” statute, sought to profit from her name and threatened her security.
Before Barbra Streisand filed this lawsuit, a few people only had seen the photograph. But, as a result of the case, hundreds of thousands of people sought it out online. Not only did a Los Angeles Superior Court judge dismiss the lawsuit and order Streisand to pay legal fees, but she also inadvertently brought attention to the photograph she wanted removed.
The earliest instances of Streisand effect that I have found are from the following, published in Management Today:
Why is it that the more we try to hide or repress information, the more it’s bound to be known by everybody and their brother?
by Helen Kirwan-Taylor – email@example.com
Published: 01 Feb 2008 Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010
Those super clandestine relationships in the office are always public knowledge; any highly embarrassing and compromising piece of information is the first thing to get posted on the internet. The term ‘Streisand Effect’ was invented to describe the attempt by the singer to prevent aerial shots of her house being published. The more effort she put into banning them, the quicker they circulated around the world. The same can be said for any exciting titbit of office gossip. Anything that remotely sounds salacious gets out, no matter how many attempts are made to prevent it. We all know that papers marked ‘confidential’ are always the first to be leaked to the press. The cure is to do nothing, see nobody and avoid interesting people and activities at all costs.
The second-earliest occurrences that I have found are from the Hartford Courant (Hartford, Connecticut, USA) of Thursday 28th February 2008:
They Call It The ‘Streisand Effect’
Closing Of Website Brings Backlash
By Paul Elias
San Francisco—An effort at damage control has snowballed into a public relations disaster for a Swiss bank seeking to crack down on a renegade website for posting classified information about some of its wealthy clients.
Documents from Bank Julius Baer containing information about several bank clients […] were posted last month on Wikileaks.org. The site purports to discourage unethical behavior by corporations and governments by putting leaked documents online.
The website claimed the documents showed tax evasion and money laundering schemes at the bank’s Cayman Islands branch. […]
In federal court in San Francisco, the bank asked the judge to take down the site. Much to the outrage of free speech advocates and others, the judge did.
But instead of the information disappearing, it rocketed through cyberspace, landing on other websites and Wikileaks’ own “mirror” sites outside the U.S. The digerati call the online phenomenon of a censorship attempt backfiring into more unwanted publicity the “Streisand effect.”
Techdirt Inc. chief executive Mike Masnick coined the term on his popular technology blog after the entertainer Barbra Streisand’s 2003 lawsuit seeking to remove satellite photos of her Malibu house. Those photos are now easily accessible, just like the bank documents.
Masnick said the bank’s lawsuit demonstrates the ineffectiveness of such legal actions in the Internet age, when anyone with a computer and online connection can thumb his nose at a judge’s ruling and resurrect the “banned” information elsewhere.
Several years before Mike Masnick coined Streisand effect, the horticulturist Marco Polo Stufano had invented the term Barbra Streisand effect to describe the “startling plant combinations” that he created—as explained in Break out from the boring, urges veteran of plant design, published in The Vancouver Sun (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada) of Saturday 7th November 1992:
The director of horticulture at Wave Hill Gardens in New York for the past 25 years, Stufano has dared to be different and gained international recognition for his imaginative design concepts and startling plant combinations.
For example, he put orange dahlias and pink asters together to create what he calls the “Barbra Streisand effect, a jarring combination of plants that initially sets your teeth on edge but that you learn to appreciate for its strength of character, its gutsiness.”
The following Brevity cartoon, published in the Arizona Daily Star (Tucson, Arizona) of Thursday 18th October 2012, gives a humorous sense to Streisand effect. It depicts two women wearing mourning standing before an unseen grave; the widow explains why her husband passed away: “He was fine until he saw how much I paid for tickets to see Barbra in concert.” This explanation is encapsulated in the caption: “The Streisand effect”: