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‘Trial by Google’ the new threat to privacy, Leveson warns

Trial by media? Trial by Google is the real threat to privacy, Lord Justice Brian Leveson told a Sydney audience today — fresh from delivering his media ethics report to the UK government.

There is not only a danger of trial by Twitter, but also of an unending punishment, and no prospect of rehabilitation, via Google,” warned Lord Justice Brian Leveson in Sydney this morning.

Instances of naming and shaming are relatively commonplace. It takes but a minute to record someone doing something in a public place and to upload it up to the internet. Once on the internet the episode, the behaviour, is there for the world to see and is there permanently at the click of a mouse.”

The resulting harm can be “both permanent and disproportionate”.

Children and the young do not appreciate that uploading a compromising photograph for a laugh can have consequences for the long term future because once the photograph is in the public domain, it can be found, copied and reproduced,” he said.

Leveson was giving the keynote address to today’s “Privacy in the 21st Century” symposium, organised by the Communications Law Centre at the University of Technology Sydney. He set his warning in an historical context.

The gossip-filled “penny press” of 1830s England, the tabloids of their day, were wildly popular and seen as a threat to members of society. So were the emerging technologies such as the telephone, the wiretap and photography. But in time the excesses of the new media operations were reined in by new laws and new social norms.

In many ways we’ve been here before,” Leveson said. But he also also saw key differences when it came to the internet.

While newspapers and other traditional news media might push the boundaries when it comes to invading privacy, they’re generally held in check by commercial pressures as much as the law, said Leveson. Not so for the internet.

With some exceptions for bloggers who carry advertising and tweeters who are sponsored, online bloggers or tweeters are not subject to the financial incentives which affect the print media, and which would persuade the press not to overstep society’s values and ethical standards. Equally, there is a view that blogging or tweeting is publication without responsibility or accountability and that, in this sense, the internet is beyond the reach of the law,” he said.

Leveson pointed to the 2011 “super-injunction spring” in England and Wales, when interim injunctions were granted prohibiting the disclosure of both the substantive content of the injunction and the very existence of the injunction itself. Traditional media complied. Bloggers and tweeters didn’t.

Rumour and speculation regarding the number of such injunctions was rife. Twitter in particular and various blogs circulated and discussed names of individuals who were said to have obtained such injunctions. Names of various celebrities swirled around the internet,” he said.

Bloggers rejoice in placing their servers outside the jurisdiction where different laws apply.”

But internet users are not actually beyond the reach of the law, Leveson said, citing as examples the prosecution of individuals involved in the UK’s autumn 2011 riots, and Twitter users being sued for defamation for wrongly identifying someone as a p-edophile.

Given that the internet is not entirely out of the law’s reach it is likely in time that, as with the media in the 19th century, it will start to have an effect in individuals’ behaviour. It will start to modulate behaviour, and curb its wilder excesses. Time and proper application of the law will play the same role for the internet as it has done in all other areas of our lives. It will shape our behaviour and help to reinforce social norms,” Leveson said.

This is not to say that social norms may not change over time. Our view of what is, for instance, private information may change. Our view of privacy may change. I imagine though that individuals will always seek to preserve some degree of privacy and will seek the law’s protection to protect it.”

Leveson did not comment on his recent report on media ethics to the UK government. “I treat the report as a judgement, and a judgement must speak for itself,” he said.

The symposium continues this afternoon.

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  • 1
    Peter Shute
    Posted Friday, 7 December 2012 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    And he is correct but will face the fury of many in the media, tech writers, bloggers and such who believe they have the freedom to name, shame or invent conspiracies often citing each other as ‘evidence’.

    Witness the McAlpine falsehoods that jumped the shark where mainstream media began to parrot and dip their toes into David Icke’s weird conspiracy claims that say the royal family are reptilian devil worshippers running a pedo ring.

    The MSM is floundering to such an extent that today we have press agent arrested in the UK in the Jimmy Savile matter- a man who sold stories about another infamous one arrested in the same matters,to the mainly Murdoch tabloids.

    But bloggers and their media supporters rejoice in corporate entities like Google, Twitter, Facebook and the rest who base themselves off-shore, pay minimal tax and suck the life out of advertising revenues.

    Far from freedom, the advent of the internet and Google with the falsehood that somehow it is free and uncontrolled, hastens fascist style control.

  • 2
    John Bennetts
    Posted Saturday, 8 December 2012 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    What is privacy? Where did it come from? Who has privacy and who has not? What is the social cost of privacy, and what is the social benefit?

    I imagine that out there somewhere, there are well considered books on this subject.

    In trisecretsbal life, privacy is close to zero. Everybody knows everybody else’s actions - or soon will, especially if they are antisocial.

    In pre-industrial society, privacy was more or less available to the upper classes but not to the remainder of the population. The lord of the manor had secrets, mistresses: privacy for the few, it could be argued, came at the expense of the many whose circumstances limited privacy to the basics.

    So, is privacy a right or a construct? Wgere does it start and how much privacy is too much? Is privacy a universal right?

    In an increasingly open and communicative world, with millions of public security cameras and digital recognition software, cross-matched files of personal tax, finance, education and social matters, what forms of privacy are essential?

    Last, why is it an invasion of privacy when a royal lass has her upper torso photographed or a prince has his bottom published for all to see but is not an issue when millions of others, similarly disrobed, are photographed by others annually? Did they not disrobe voluntarily?

    Putting modern laws aside, what ethical, moral and philosophical issues are at foot regarding the history and practice of privacy in modern, electronic, Western society?

    Where is the intellectually rigorous book on the subject?

  • 3
    John Bennetts
    Posted Saturday, 8 December 2012 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    trisecretsbal = tribal, sorry. Typo.

  • 4
    Kaye Uiterwyk
    Posted Tuesday, 11 December 2012 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    The dream of a “free” internet is finished. It was a liberal geeky dream that had its origins in the vaguely-hippy-communal-freethinking culture of the 60s and 70s. Now “free” has become a Trojan Horse. Advertising and data mining pays for everything. Bloggers are as beholden to their advertisers as old media. More beholden because there’s so much more competition for the advertising dollar. Old media had a monopoly on the production and distribution of media. So it had the luxury of separating editorial from advertising. On-line media doesn’t have this clout. There are thousands and thousands of blogs recycling the same old rubbish. So much for diversity. Somebody or something has to pay the bills. Journalism, in print and on-line, is at its lowest ebb. We need to start paying for things. We’ll only have a free press when we start coughing up some our hard-earned to pay for it.

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