Category Archives: Debates

Debate Write-Up: Rewriting History, ITN, 14 July 2014

Since the judgment of the ECJ in Google Spain SL and Google Inc. v Agencia Española de Protección de Datos (AEPD) and Mario Costeja González (C-131/12), the Press has been full of articles and opinions about whether this is a practice that inhibits the freedom of expression, or whether individuals should be free to use the so-called “right to be forgotten” to reassert their privacy.

The Media Society (@themediasociety) organised a debate hosted by ITN (@itn) last night on this very issue. The chair of the debate was Alastair Stewart OBE, long serving newsreader for ITN, and speaking in the debate were:

The hashtag for the debate was #rewritinghistory.

The event kicked off with a video put together by Cathy Newman:

The basic premise that the balance between privacy and the freedom of speech is a difficult one to achieve, especially in the age of the internet leviathans such as Google or Facebook. Yet the concerns about privacy are not new; ever since computers became an everyday part of life and business, there has been a perceived risk that people’s privacy will be lost. This led to the passing of the Data Protection Act 1984, which gave people the right to know what information was held about them. Not long after this, the European Union passed the Data Protection Directive, which was later put into effect in the UK by the Data Protection Act 1998. This Act is significant, as it provided an exemption for journalists (s 32). Since then, the judiciary has been struggling with the balance.

However, the balance has been changed by the recent Google Spain case setting out a principle that individuals have the right to be forgotten. The ICO has put together draft guidelines following this judgment, and there are concerns that this will encourage the curbing of the freedom of expression. Given that local and national data protection authorities will have to deal with the judgment by setting out such guidelines for journalists, the essential question is whether there will be greater censorship or whether journalists are merely overreaching with their concerns.

Stewart then set up some of the key questions for the debate: is this essentially a fight between the Internet and governments?; is the protection afforded by the judgment excessive?; given the different protections afforded to privacy across the different EU states, will the UK move further away from the rest of the EU on this matter?; or are journalists being a bit precious with their concerns?

The first person invited to speak was Christopher Graham, the Information Commissioner. He started off by saying that the judgment is part of an overall review of the rules of engagement between Articles 8 and 10 ECHR, the right to privacy and the right to know. He acknowledged that there are some concerns about the changes, but pointed to an article in The Times on 8 July which claimed the result would be the forced destruction of material. In effect, he said, the Press were claiming this to be an EU removal of the s 32 protection. He said that this was almost 1984-esque in its analysis, rewriting what was happening to fit the narrative. However he was at pains to point out that the sky was not falling in.

He firmly reminded everyone that the media is not above the law, and that individuals do have the right to challenge the journalistic exemption under s 32 if something is not truly public interest journalism. This right to challenge the Press is being put across as a “chilling effect”. The Press do have the right to “tell it like it is”, but they do some from a privileged position. The ECJ judgment has confirmed that a search engine is a data processor and a data controller, and therefore the request to remove search engine results is in line with the Data Protection Principles as they stand. He points out that other legislation has created the right to be forgotten, such as the Protection of Freedoms Act and the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act.

One aspect of the judgment he does not necessarily welcome, however, is the expected tsunami of complaints to the ICO if Google (or any other body) refuses a requested. However, he notes that the prospective Data Protection Regulation will not remove the s 32 protection, it is safe. He finally mentioned the consultation his office is engaged in to gather views on how the judgment should work in practice.

Stewart then asked where he drew the line between public interest journalism and more general journalism. Graham acknowledged that the distinction was hard to spell out, but noted that publication of serious journalism was a key factor. He noted that this could also include celebrity publication but they were more likely to act in a way that breached the data protection principles.

Stewart further queried whether this judgment went beyond the deletion of redundant data and may result in data, such as that held by journalists for future use or verification, may be subject to deletion. Graham’s response noted that this judgment was focused on search engines, and their algorithms can be manipulated to bring something to the fore or hide it. The effect this manipulation can have can be very damaging. It is impossible to have a regular clear-out of data by way of an algorithm but search engines do need to act in line with the principles.

Stewart then asked Professor Floridi whether the matter was one of too much ill-founded pragmatism, and whether there was in fact a real danger that interested parties were looking at the rules of engagement without thinking about the balance.

Professor Floridi responded that the judgment seemed to be more about upgrading the rules as they stand, rather than a comprehensive revision. The information that can be taken down in minimal, as it only works on a name and a URL and must be a request, individuals can find the information and links in other ways. The compromise that has been created by the ECJ and by Google is not suitable. Information is stratified, and a stratified response is required to solve the issue.

Stewart moved onto John Whittingdale MP, asking whether the law needs to be reviewed because the situation is now a mess. Whittingdale agreed. His opinion was that the law as it stood was clear, as he thought it clear for the Data Retention Directive, but now a much broader view of the content is required. When asked by Stewart about whether this notion of the public interest should be considered in primary legislation, Whittingdale responded that any such attempt would not hold up to scrutiny. Whittingdale was of the view that Google is essentially a large cutting library, and it makes no sense to require the removal of the “card index” to any such library, given the size of it. He also had concerns about those people who would be making the judgement calls on whether to remove the information. When asked whether we could move away from the EU on this matter, Whittingdale noted the current political difficulties with Europe and suggested that we could, looking at the wider context of how the UK value freedom of expression compared to other countries. Graham added that the important thing to do now is consider how the proposed Data Protection Regulation will maintain or alter the protections offered.

Stewart then asked John Battle whether the judgment had changed the compliance work at all. John’s response was that the judgment is difficult to apply, and in his view the sky is indeed falling in. His view mirrored that of Whittingdale, that the law was settled, and that journalists had clear protection. His concern was that the new Regulation had the broad balance approach but no clear journalistic protection. Added to this was the take-down notices that journalists were receiving from Google after a link was removed, and he feared that there was question of whether journalistic protection still existed.

Stewart moved onto Peter Barron to get his response from the Google side of things. He asked whether Google was behaving excessively in just agreeing to take down the links so quickly. Barron answered that they had a fine line to work with. Google has already reached 70 000 requests, and gets about 1 000 requests a day. Each one has to be dealt with individually. When asked about the guidelines Google employees use to make their decision, he responded that the ruling was vague, and the question of whether something was irrelevant or out-of-date was hard to examine in practice.

Stewart asked whether Google was tempted to take a hard line on the judgment and really minimise the links removed, because currently it appeared a removal was too easy to get. Barron said that there are three categories of requests: automatically remove; leave; and request more information. He said that this was a very fine line to work with, and that it was essentially a matter between the journalists and the ICO, but overall the judgment makes it clear that privacy trumps free expression. While they would like to leave all matters for the ICO to deal with, Google could not as such (in)action is against the law. When asked whether Google employees were acting as both judge and jury, Barron agreed that they were; conventionally, either the publisher had agreed to the take down, or there was a court order. Google did not want this power or responsibility, but they have no choice. In any event, there is always an appeal to the ICO by an individual. Here Barron noted the asymmetrical process, as journalists do not have the right of appeal to the ICO to reinstate links.

Stewart asked Professor Floridi whether he thought the judgment had resulted in nonsense. Floridi agreed, stating that the whole thing was a waste of financial and mental resources, especially as those searching could use US search engines to avoid the EU jurisdiction affecting their results. He said that this was a crucial issue and needed more consideration considering the impact of the judgment.

Graham then stepped in and said that the reality was that Google is a commercial business and makes its money from publishing personal data. He then pointed to the recent spat between George Clooney and the Daily Mail as something that would appear higher up on a list of search engine results for Clooney than his acting or charitable work. Stewart pointed out that this is in fact a good example of the ethics of a national newspaper being brought to the fore, but, while accepting it was a poor example, Graham said that Google is more than just a card index. Every case is different and needs to be looked at carefully. Barron agreed, saying that some cases are difficult to judge, and something may be in the public interest but the privacy rights of the individual may trump it. He pointed to an example of where the mother of an abuse victim made the request to take down links, because it would permanently follow the victim and may affect her future if employers searched for her. Barron believed in this case, despite the obvious public interest, the removal was the right thing to do.

Stewart then asked Anya Proops whether the judgment had made her work more complex. She agreed, but pointed out that the discussion surrounding the matter was veering away from the key notion that a principle has been created where privacy trumps the right to know. This judgment is a clear assault on the freedom of expression, as there was no consideration of the democratic deficit this could result in, and there was no consideration at all of the European Charter of Fundamental Rights, particularly Article 11 which restates the right to freedom of expression across Europe.

She was also clear that there was no meaningful effect, given the lack of impact on search engines outside of Europe, and that the media were republishing material to show that it still had relevance and was in the public interest now. Stewart noted that Proops was acting in a case touching on those issues, but asked her whether this may have any impact on getting publicity for whistleblowing activity. Proops agreed with Graham that the new Regulation does extinguish the protection for journalists. Rather what it does is removes the monopoly away from the traditional media, it makes the protection more inclusive. While she could not discuss the details, she said that a case she was acting in hinged upon the question whether campaigning NGOs could use the exemption as it currently stands under s 32.

When asked whether there was a sensible solution, Proops noted that she thinks the ECJ got it wrong, and has set the discussions on the balance back. Any solution needs to serve both the interests of individuals to protect their privacy and the right to receive information. Graham added that he believed the situation could work, but that it requires all the relevant data protection authorities to create unified guidelines.

Holly Watt was asked for her views, but she believed that there were too many issues to sort the matter sensibly, and that for as long as she had been working as a journalist the entire question had been in a state of flux. Her role is connecting disparate information, and the judgment certainly limits her ability to do her job. Stewart asked her whether this was something that the Press deserved, given the public attitude to revelations over the previous few years. She believes that it depends on the example. Hers was the politicians’ expenses data, which was incredibly important at the time and still has an impact now. The paper still has the data, despite the ICO not being keen on it and against the recommendations of Leveson LJ. She said that the Press has had a difficult time lately, but it really needs to look forward.

Whittingdale noted that the intention of Parliament was to make what was (un)lawful offline the same online. He also pointed to s 12 Human Rights Act, where Parliament expressly set out the free of expression to the UK legal identity. His concern is that this judgment has concerns for liberty. When asked whether his committee should act on this, Whittingdale that this is more for the Ministry of Justice, though it is something he is happy to pursue. Graham said what should happen is a moratorium on action until a few cases have been appealed to the ICO and beyond, as this will ensure the right balance is drawn now. Proops disagreed, noting that the issue is EU wide. The UK has a strong value in freedom of expression, but other states do not and this will lead to patchwork protection. The whole purpose of the Directive and the Regulation is for one law across Europe.

Stewart then opened the debate to questions from the floor.

(AF note: I could not hear all the names, so apologies there. However, if people know the speaker’s name I am happy to fill it in)

A speaker from the University of Cambridge noted that the panel was slightly unbalanced towards the freedom of expression. He said that leaving it to the courts may be wrong, and that we should consider looking at the matter from a constitutional point of view. He also said that Google needs to focus on its responsibilities.

Mark Stephens (@MarksLarks), a well-respected media lawyer, asked two questions: 1) what is the ICO’s definition of journalism; and 2) whether the office will be getting more resources to deal with the expected appeals.

Graham responded that funding is a separate issue, as he is reliant upon notification fees for data protection registration, and only gets money from the government for the FOI work. Regarding a definition of journalism, he noted that it was hard to define, but if it walked like a journalist, talked liked a journalist … What matters is the public interest, and balancing a very difficult balance. Proops responded that this could lead to serious censorship if a piece did not meet the “serious journalism” threshold. She said we should also not forget how the less serious journalism funds the more serious journalism. Professor Floridi noted the difficulties of finding a definition, but highlighted a key principle in the debate, that the information is untouched and that accessibility to information is what is at stake here.

The next comments from the floor were from Lord Inglewood, who noted that the judgment is fixed currently so pressure needs to be exercised politically. Pressure needs to be exerted on the European Commission, the European Parliament, and the UK Parliament. He also raised the question as to whether a challenge could be raised in the European Court of Human Rights.

Joshua Rozenberg (@JoshuaRozenberg) asked two questions. Firstly, he asked whether using a non-EU version of Google would reveal all the “missing” links, which Barron confirmed is correct. He then asked whether Google should set up an internal review process, given that journalists cannot complain to the ICO. Barron said that webmasters have got in contact to reinstate links, most noticeably articles by Robert Peston on Merrill Lynch and certain Guardian articles. He said that Google has also announced the creation of an advisory board to discuss the broader issues at stake. Graham added that journalists in such circumstances do not have data protection rights contrary to those of individuals, but that Google is not and cannot be the final arbiter of such decisions. When Barron said that small search engines may not be able to cope with the costs that Google can lay out for extra staff and the like, Graham responded that that is the nature of business.

Katie Hind, Showbiz Editor for the Sunday People, asked whether there was a danger the ICO was creating an uneven playing field and making it more difficult for popular journalism. Graham responded that the information was still available, just not as easy to get to. His role is to help individuals who want to assert their data protection right. The facts of each case are what matters, and that self-interested voices are clouding the issue.

Bob Satchwell, the Executive Director of the Society of Editors said that the issue was getting further muddled. The question of resources and practicality is important, but what matters is the point of principle. Our value for the freedom of expression is high, but other EU states do not have the same value (here he pointed to France, noted for its pro-privacy stance towards its politicians). When asked by Stewart if this judgment was a case of self-inflicted wounds, Mr Satchwell responded that some journalists had done bad things, but the public is more concerned about the stories that they are not allowed to print.

James Milligan from the Direct Marketing Association noted that the first data protection legislation in this country came from a pre-Internet age, but the caselaw is now based on the reality of the Internet. It is important to lobby for a sensible Regulation. The Regulation is currently at the negotiation stage in the Council of Ministers, so there is still time for more lobbying to be done.

Greg Neale of the Media Society and founding editor of BBC History Magazine said that the issue is wider than first considered, considering historians and NGOs, among others, collect data for their work. Perhaps it is time to widen the concept of journalism and journalist to afford greater protections. The power of such rights is to be able to use the rights available to citizens in ways other than as an ordinary citizen. As a citizen first then a journalist, he should be able to use all the rights afforded to him as a citizen.

Another speaker from the floor agreed with that analysis, for if privacy trumps freedom of expression then there is an issue. Setting journalists apart however is not the right answer, given the move towards citizen journalists. Neither is keeping the status quo. What is important is that neither right trumps the other.



This was a debate with passionately held views on either side. It did seem that Christopher Graham came in for criticism, given his stance as the Information Commissioner, but his role as he explained is to help individuals assert their data protection rights. Three points from the debate stand out:

  • one from Joshua Rozenberg, that it is possible to use other search engines based outside of the EU to get the lost results. This seems to make both the judgment and the surrounding panic about it redundant, if the ease of access to information is still there;
  • one from Professor Floridi that links to the above, that the information itself remains, and all that is being removed is the easy access to it by a search engine by using the target’s name; and
  • one from the speakers on the floor, that journalistic protections should be expanded to protect those who are not members of the traditional Press but do their own investigative work and blogging.

The third point above seems the easiest to deal with. The way that people take in and report information has changed dramatically over the past thirty years. The rise of blogging and search engines has allowed people to do their own digging and publish their own reports on matters of (to them) public interest. The work often has real value and yet, as matters stand, such bloggers are not entitled to the protection afforded by s 32 Data Protection Act. This may seem an affront to the principle of protection given that celebrity or more tabloid journalism can have that same protection. It is certainly a protection that needs to be enshrined in the new Regulation, noting that citizens of Europe are more than capable of using data in the public interest and should be protected.

The others can be lumped together. What actual use is this judgment if the search results can easily be found simply by changing the location settings on a browser? Quite simply, none. The rights to impart and receive information are still strong. Perhaps what this judgment brings out is that a new sub-right based upon these rights is now being determined, the right to easily accessible information. At what point does information become hard enough to find that the right to receive that information has been breached? Given the judgment, it seems that any such threshold must be high.

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Filed under Debates, Human Rights, Information, Internet, Media

Whose Internet Is It Anyway? Panel Discussion review

The growth of the Internet as a tool for a mass participation and communication has led to its inclusion in a group of ‘resources’ termed the global commons. They are to be used for the benefit of the global population, and yet in the past year alone we have seen some of the most chilling news stories about control, surveillance and repression by states on this crucial resource. It is in this post-Snowden atmosphere that we were asked the question, “Whose Internet Is It Anyway?”

The panel discussion was chaired by Neil Wallis, and involved David Allen Green, lawyer and a blogger for the FT, Robert Amsterdam, a well-renowned lawyer, international privacy advocate, and recent recipient of the 2013 World Pro Bono lawyer award, John Cooper QC, a barrister based at 25 Bedford Row, and Doug Cassel, a Notre Dame Presidential Fellow and Professor of Law there.

Cassel started the discussion with a look at the existing challenges to online freedom. There is a mismatch between Internet communication and legal norms, both at an international level and a domestic level. There is also a mismatch between the international and domestic approaches to the Internet, and national regulation and the different regimes used by states within that domestic regulation. The varying social and legal cultures are causing the situation to reach a crisis point.

Cassel pointed to examples of states restricting full access to the internet, including China, North Korea and Iran, and then noted the hypocrisy of the US and other states (including the UK) in condemning this activity but shoring it up with their own covert surveillance, the extent of which was recently revealed by Snowden. As a direct result of this, a collection of NGOs, including Privacy International, has created thirteen International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance to protect people across the world, and these are currently in front of the UNHRC and the special rapporteurs on privacy. Privacy is definitely on the policy agenda.

Cooper continued in this vein, saying that the cross-section of disciplines interested in this area is fascinating. His personal emphasis in this matter is the conflict between protecting victims of crimes and other matters and the freedom of expression on social media, and the expansion of this freedom to including blogging and podcasting. Cooper feels that a good starting point is to look at what is meant by the Internet. It is an enfranchising tool; it allows people to get involved. It was typically unpopular with the press (direct conflict for news), the state (dissent), police (dissent and hard to control), and lawyers, but each group has recognised the value in social media and now are growing users of it.

Amsterdam started from the point that the Internet is a tool for both government and the people, but that the government is better at it. He is aware that the growth of the Internet had helped politicians move away from constitutional protection as time as marched on. He could never before imagine that the US government would lose respect for the Fourth Amendment, protecting individuals from illegal search and seizure, and protecting the integrity of a person’s identity. He noted that that s 215 Patriot Act allows for a greatly empowered right of seizure with a low threshold for its activation, and this is a dangerous step. The Snowden case reveals that the US involvement in monitoring the Internet should be subject to a ‘deep state analysis’, asking the question ‘who is really in power?’

He led on from this by pointing to Egypt, noting that such an analysis showed that the same people were really in control of the country and its surveillance, regardless of which President was in power. It is a constant reminder that the net is an empowering tool, but the state now has a greater power than before to watch us.

Green started off his piece by discussing the growth of his Jack of Kent blog, and how his experience showed that bloggers could fill the news gap left by the Press, in his case by explaining the events of the BCA v Singh libel trial when the traditional Press had backed away for fear of repeating an actionable statement and thus opening themselves up to the possibility of libel proceedings. This led to him continuing to provide such explanation about a variety of different legal matters, and as a result he was part of the legal team involved in the Twitter Joke Trial. It was in this case that he saw and experienced the absurdity of the English legal system trying to catch up with the advances in technology, despite being restrained by old laws. The Twitter Joke Trial was the first set of hearings solely concerning social media, a prosecution under what has now been determined to be a wrongfully used telecommunications law). The law is playing a game of catch-up.

Wallis noted that a clear point shared by all the speakers was the clear disconnect between the law as it stands and the ‘runaway train’ of social media and Internet communications. With the number of legal cases concerning social media growing, he asked whether the Internet could be contained.

Cooper started off by noting that the weight of legislation activated by social media is staggering; there can be criminal proceedings, harassment proceedings, libel proceedings, and there is even litigation about the ownership of followers on Twitter. The recent English case of McAlpine v Bercow shows that the law does bite on social media, and can do severely. He further noted that 653 faced criminal charges for comments made online, clearly stretching police resources. The laws used to punish social media transgression include the Public Order Act, the Communications Act, and the Malicious Communications Act. None of these laws were designed for social media. When working with Cooper on the Twitter Joke Trial appeal, Green found very little law designed for the internet, and old inappropriate legislation was being used. Cooper ended his point by saying that there is too much old and inappropriate law being used, and we need no new laws to deal with the Internet.

Wallis’ next question partially came from his own experiences of being threatened and harassed online, so he asked Green whether he thoughts the laws were being used repressively.

Green’s response was that the difficulty an individual had in publishing their views in previous times no longer exists. The type of self-publishing in pamphlet form as seen in the McLibel trial has now become a lot easier. The old laws used currently were based in old post office legislation to protect individuals from poison pen letters, or to protect those working on telephone exchanges. However, the broad phrase ‘public electronic communications network’ can include the Internet so the laws are being made to apply. However, it is worth noting that there is a carve-out in the legislation to protect broadcasting, which then raises a question over social media: is social media merely a new form of self-broadcasting? In the Twitter Joke Trial, we could the English legal system trying to use old law to catch up, but it is not succeeding.

Wallis then asked Amsterdam about how the difficulties experienced by democratic states are being replicated by more repressive regimes.

Amsterdam started with an example from his time working with the ex-President of Zambia, Rupiah Banda, to prevent the country sliding into a one party state. The current incumbent Sata has used Chinese technology to control the internet, and it is clearly now possible to use technology to isolate part of the internet or certain websites to limit them, not using a sledgehammer approach by ‘disconnecting’ the entire internet. However, he is more concerned by the use of action by those so-called less repressive states. Taking the example of Kim Dotcom and Megaupload, Amsterdam pointed out the role of the Hollywood lobbyists in getting the US to target Dotcom following the failure of the government to pass the Stop Online Piracy Act. US special forces raided Dotcom’s home in New Zealand, and he was jailed for 30 days, all without a hearing. The only hearing had was regarding his extradition. When speaking to Amsterdam, Dotcom had concerns that he was a victim of Five Eyes surveillance. Amsterdam initially rejected this idea, but the evidence clearly showed that he had been a target for intrusive mass surveillance. So much so, in fact, that the Prime Minister of New Zealand had to apologise to him for illegal surveillance. Amsterdam says that it is not clear that special interest carry a lot more weight regarding online policy than they should, and that the merging of terrorism legislation and money laundering legislation is increasingly being used to target more ordinary individuals, with great consequences.

Wallis followed this up by noting that his own experience of arrest and long bail shows this to be true. So he then turned to Cassel to ask whether anything could be done.

Cassel starts from the point that using the common law to change things is a slow process. It is clear from the old international treaties and other legislation that the Internet was not considered a possibility when they were created. So starting from this lagging point, how can the law catch up? The states using repressive legislation claim they are just trying to catch terrorists, but they can compile a personal profile from metadata that is more detailed than day-to-day surveillance could reveal. The thirteen principles (here) are clearly needed but it will take time for them to become part of the governance of the Internet.



The discussion then opened up to question from the floor.

Phillip Taylor, a barrister of Richmond Green Chambers, asked the panel what their view on the use of nicknames and anonymity online was, and whether the Human Rights Act should be repealed as it is clearly no use. Green’s response was that the he does not feel the HRA goes far enough, as we clearly still do not have a culture of human rights in the UK. There is always the question of which rights one would get rid of, and it is important to remember it is a compromise document. Cooper’s response was that anonymity is not of itself an issue, but it can cause issues on social media. However, he pointed to the use of Norwich Pharmacal orders to reveal the identities of those harassing others or committing crimes. He used the example of such an order being granted to a woman being victimised on Facebook, ostensibly for defamation proceedings, but then the information was given to the police. Cooper also pointed out that organisations are getting better at providing the information when requested.

A further question asked whether regulation was being stifled due to a misconception of the Internet as one entity. Green’s response that it wouldn’t really be possible to ‘control’ the net regardless of how it was treated, and that the combinations of legislation are resulting in an attack on the human rights relating to the internet anyway. Cooper followed this up by stating that all the methods used to restrain state power, legal aid, judicial review and human rights were all under attack in the UK. Cassel took a different approach, stating that he did not view the Internet at the hardware, but rather than cyberspace was the communication and personal identity information. Regardless, we in the UK should be grateful for the HRA, as it is better than what is available in the US.

The next question asked whether there could be legislation for limiting the collection of data. Amsterdam started by saying this is already a key issue in cloud computing, and that the Snowden case has shown that the US is already happy to spy on its friends. The protection afforded by the courts in this matter is a joke, and the EU needs to realise what is going on with its citizens data, otherwise they will find that great swathes are data will be migrated and we have no rights to prevent it. Green pointed out that substituting the word ‘cloud’ for ‘US jurisdiction’ provides a good shorthand for the issue at large. Cassel further pointed put that the legislation is there but its implementation is very poor. Cooper finished this question by noting that the impact of cybercrime is also limiting the implementation of legislation, pointing to how banks do not report cyber attacks for fear of loss of confidence in them. If they were compelled to report the matters to a central authority, then the legislation would soon follow. He noted that we have the legislation to protect us but it is not used.

The following question asked about the other side of the Internet, its being used for spreading information and revolution, as seen in the Arab Spring and Green Revolution. Amsterdam started by saying that it is a tool for both freedom of information and for repression. The learning curve of the oppressive state is a lot quicker than that of the disorganised individual. He made a reference to presumption of regularity, than all governments are alike and act alike. However, he countered this by discussing the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation, a new institution led by China and Russia, which has moved away from the reformist agenda and holds tighter control on online information.

The next question asked whether we could regulate the use of information so collection can happen without the risks of abuse of that information. The response from the panel was a resounding no. Cassel noted that the governments would always find a way to use data once it is collected. Cooper followed this up by noting that freedom of expression is a very difficult right, as it allows us to pass comments in a matter that offends others, but we have to live with it. He would not trust the government not to abuse his data. Green agreed, noting that people are scared of the Internet as it provides too much power or because it restricts power. Amsterdam finished off by noting that by doing so, we would be failing to address the growth of state power, and that the answer to the question “whose Internet is it anyway” is “it ain’t yours”.


There were some incredibly sobering comments from the panel, but given the news over the past year, this tone should not be surprising. While the UNHRC are looking at the issue of privacy on the Internet, it clear that states around the world will ignore an international regime that is created around it, because their own interests are too great. It should not be surprising that allies are spying on each other’s data, and perhaps this is a lesson for the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation to consider; despite being a liberalising and globalising force, the internet is an arena for realpolitik, and this disparity is at the heart of the battle between user and states for its control.

The Internet is an arena where the disciplines of politics, international relations, and law all meet, and are all butting up against each other in our bid to understand the mores and norms that surround it. A comment from Cassel suggests that other studies should be added to this list: he believes that the Internet is not the hardware, but rather the communication and the personal information. Given the people element of the global commons, we should anthropology and sociology into the mix when considering the Internet and control and revolution. However, coming at the problem from different angles will not provide the solution, but will only raise more questions. Perhaps there is no one solution, but that little detail will not stop the fight over the Internet.


The panel discussion was held at the University of Notre Dame in London on 1 October 2013. Many thanks to all who took part, and to Hannah Manson of Amsterdam & Partners for co-ordinating.

Tweets from the panel discussion can be found under the hashtag #onlinefreedom

(edited at 11:35 on 3 October to reflect David Allen Green’s comment)


Filed under Debates, Information, Internet, Media

Press Rights v Privacy Rights: the UCL/Bindsmans debate, 8 February 2012

UCL and Bindmans co-host an annual debate on a topic concerning the Press, and this year saw the fourth such debate in the series. With all that has gone one in the preceding twelve months, this debate was incredibly ‘on-topic’ and was unsurprisingly incredibly packed with attendees from such large law firms, news organisations, and others involved in the Press.

The speakers for the debate were:

The chair of the debate was Hugh Tomlinson QC of Matrix Chambers., with introductions made by Professor Dame Hazel Genn DBE, Dean of Laws at UCL, and Tamsin Allen, partner at Bindmans LLP.

Tomlinson started by setting a few ground rules for the discussion and two key questions: is it time for a privacy law, and is it time for statutory regulation of the Press? With the Leveson Inquiry in full flow and being broadcast, people are incredibly aware of the power of the Press, more so than during the time of the Calcutt Commission which advised the creation of a Press Complaints Commission.

The first speaker up was Tessa Jowell, who said she was basing her talk on her time at DCMS. For her, this is a key moment in time for a change. Her view was that we should not get stuck in past events, and that this period was something bigger than just between politicians and the media. It was the shock of the NewsCorp dealings with the police to get the public concerned with this issue; the public are more discerning than they are given credit for, the knowledge of the relationship between politicians and the media is well known.

She followed this with the point that nobody was that interested in the revelations about public figures, the public expect it as part of a celebrity’s media relationship. However, despite the revelations, a free Press is a must. The alternative is a lot worse, so there must be a better way to get a good settlement, a good balance.

Jowell said that she has no sense of political scores being settled by the hearings [AF note: though this may need to be re-evaluated in light of the Dacre/Grant spat]. The Press should be free, but needs a better understanding of what is acceptable as a method of getting a story. The Press should also be free of those with discernible vested interests, including those of the editors (especially their pact of mutual protection). There is a clear need for duality and balance; when the Press works along those lines it does its job best. The CMS committee is doing an excellent job of redrawing that balance.

Technology is allowing people to self-inform, and it is moving quickly. In Jowell’s opinion, the Leveson Inquiry is solving yesterday’s problems. There still needs to be concern about the ability of everyone to access justice relating to the Press, not just the rich. Serving in public life should be upheld as a good thing, but there is a risk that the quality of people coming forward will degrade due to the press risk. As DCMS Secretary, Jowell believed that media literacy was something to be promoted, especially the notion of words and timing. Instead, she feels that regulation is only the starting point; we need to look to an engaged and assertive public demanding the freedom of an intelligent Press.

Martin Moore followed up; he agreed with Jowell in that privacy as an issue is far bigger than the Press. Moore made reference to a Mark Zuckerberg interview where he stated that the age of privacy is over, and he would have made all information public from the start. He pointed out that the practical boundaries of private life have changed, the restraints have almost disappeared; especially with Facebook, publication is easy. He pointed to the suicide of Tyler Clementi, that the publication of videos and the consequences show that the practical restraints have gone, but we need something to replace them. People generally believe that there should be some privacy protection; people should respect the line between the public and the private. If there are no formal constraints, some agencies will use any means to get the story.

However, Moore pointed to the increased use of legal constraints to fill the gap of the now-defunct practical restraints, but this causes further tensions about where the line lies. That this legal protection exists is sensible, but the real question is how to protect the journalist’s right to intrude in the public interest.

This public interest defence barely exists in the protection legislation that is used often, using the case against the Guardian journalist to reveal her source as a good example of this. He set out some themes that form a public interest defence in codes created for organisations:

(i)           preventing the dissemination of misleading information;

(ii)          disclosing decision making for the public interest;

(iii)         for health and/or safety;

(iv)         to prevent corruption; or

(v)          for the prevention of crime.

However, the one that never gets included is to test allegations of hypocrisy. A right of intrusion would better define the line between public and private. Good journalists will have the confidence to act, bad journalists will think twice.

Gil Phillips followed Moore. Her talk was based upon the Press’ perspective. The state of a democracy is shown by the health of its press. She doesn’t believe that statutory regulation is the answer, but there needs to be a new way of regulating. However, in that search for a new way, we must keep our perspective. Phone hacking is not a failure of regulation, but rather an instance of criminality at a paper and a failure of the police to investigate. Since printing has started, there have been state attempts to control the Press [AF note: a legal history lesson is always welcome]. Illegal printing has in the past resulted in hanging or disembowelling. However, this control works both ways, with the Press involved in a back-scratching relation with the political elite. History tells us that the instinct of those in power is to control the Press strongly, but this is coupled with the knowledge that regulation distorts access to the truth. Phillips suggested that a form of PCC max is required, as self-regulation was never full self-enforcing, but also pointed out that questions exist over blogging, as they operate on the edge of reporting. There will always be those who engage in luminal activities, and more top down regulation will not help, so it is not needed. What needs to be remembered is that this moment in time is part of a wider battle over access to information.

Max Mosley’s opening point was that we don’t want a controlled press, but neither do we want a press-controlled government. People who aren’t British citizens can control the actions of the British government [AF note: his mention of Tony Blair’s visit to Australia makes it clear who this is a reference to], and while the PCC has not failed to make the rules, it has not enforced those rules and cannot do so. He asked how we can enforce them without state control, and his suggestion was to separate the rule-making arm from the enforcement art, which should be completely independent. At this point Phillips interjected, saying that the creation of the free press has been a long fought battle, but admits that some changes do need to be made. Mosley said that there is a clear need to define the public interest in statute. Any such statute must contain some presumptions as to what the public interest is, but it is important that these presumptions can be rebutted. He also requested that any such statute allows the prevention of publication if it is required.

Following the speeches, there was time for some questions:

The first question looked at the Press and incivility; as women are being objectified and disabled people attacked for claiming benefits, what did the panel think of this?

Mosley pointed to the evidence given by Moy at the Leveson Inquiry which showed that this is a problem that is coming to the fore, including collusion with government departments over stories to help foster an attitude towards policies. Jowell furthered this by remarking that some papers focus more on the sales they make to certain groups more than the dissemination of information. However, she made the very important point that we can rely on drafting regulating principles well to safeguard every reader from offence, we should rely on people being offended on behalf of others and to refuse to buy the paper.

Mosley set out a plan for a free tribunal that would give access to anyone feeling aggrieved by the Press, with a hearing being allowed on one of four grounds: defamation, accuracy, offence, and misleading information. Phillips also said that offence is a matter of internal culture, and the appropriate use of words. Complaints are also learning opportunities for the Press, working out when they go too far. It is the only way the Press learns, such as describing victims in a derogatory way, i.e. acknowledging that a murder victim is a prostitute when such a description is not required.

A second question noted that this is just a part of a wider debate, and asked what the panel thought about whether a press commissioner should be a privacy commissioner. Another question asks why no-one seems to have done anything about the police passing information to the press.

Jowell agreed that the police passing information is an accepted fact, that it helps to supplement the income. As the cases are dealt with by the relevant authority, the government didn’t look at the problem systemically. However, it is important to remember that most police don’t do this, that they feel ashamed and wish to reassert the professionalism of the police. Mosley did however ask why the Home Secretary has never required the Commissioner for Police to investigate. He also referred to Hugh Grant’s statements in evidence that a call to the police would lead the journalists to arrive before they do. Phillips agreed with this, as the journalists knew that Harry Redknapp was to be arrested; the question is how.

Tomlinson then brought the question back to one of a privacy commissioner. Moore said that that the idea sounds sensible but looking at the ICO, the commitment and practicalities regarding resources would need to be met and safeguarded to make it work. Mosley returned to his idea of a free tribunal to adjudicate matters.

Following on from this, a question was asked about who should sit on such a tribunal to ensure that it is a fair deal for both the press and public.

Mosley’s response was barristers or solicitors could the tribunal ‘judges’, but as with the PCC as it stands, it should be funded by the Press. He noted that this is cheaper than the overall cost of litigation. Jowell liked the idea of a tribunal and the presumptions for public interest in a statute, but also suggested that members of the public be used for the tribunal as well. Jowell said that any system would require proportionality and access to representation for those who want it.

A fifth question noted that the definition of public interest is a key issue but asked how it could be defined. Following that, should people in the public eye be held to a higher standard? A sixth question asked how the public interest matter sits with the need to sell papers, and a seventh question asked how privacy on the Internet can be protected. Can we draw a line?

Moore said that transparency can have a chilling effect on poor behaviour, and that the public interest is also about what isn’t in it, as well as what is. Jowell went further, saying that the consequence of press campaigns can also intensely damaging, pointing to the Daily Mail’s campaign against the triple vaccine which has been found to be untrue. Jowell believed that the Internet would have been a strong force for good in that. Mosley said that just because something is popular doesn’t make it right. For him, the net is just another medium, removing the power of its mystery is key. On the matter of public interest, Phillips believed that there should be positive criteria for public interest, including public information and encouraging debate. There should be a stronger and clearer definition of privacy, and the public need to be educated about the dangers of the net.


What was clear from this was that there was no real debate around the matter as such: all the panel agreed that change, and drastic change at that, was needed. All also agreed that the freedom of the Press is important, and that the revelations we have all become familiar with are the work of only a very small number of individuals. It was however very interesting to note that the PCC was very rarely mentioned, and it seems that the panel reflected the public mood that the PCC is now a defunct organisation.

However, there was very little to be said about what could be done to effect this change. Mosley’s idea of a free tribunal is an intriguing one, fairly similar to a plan devised by Chris Bryant MP, and incredibly similar to the organisation Early Resolution which started up last year. However, this doesn’t seem to help with the problems of self-regulation that we have seen arise from the Leveson Inquiry. It was merely agreed that it was a difficult task, as it requires both a controlled and a free Press to exist. These ideas seem mutually exclusive, and the panel acknowledged this. Perhaps the silence on this from the panel was out of respect for the ideas that will come from the Leveson Inquiry, or perhaps it was more out of recognition for what a difficult question it is to answer.


Filed under Debates, Media

Cameras in Court: is there any point?

The debate about having cameras in court has been going for some time now. The basic point, that justice should not only be done but should also seen to be done is an important one (if a very literal interpretation of the point), holds true. We are so used to seeing the goings-on in Parliament on TV; the growth of interest in the work of Parliamentary committees and inquiries has led to their broadcast; and with tweeting is now allowed in courts so long as it complies with the Lord Chief Justice’s guidance. We have instant updates from journalists, bloggers, and interested observers to these proceedings, so why shouldn’t there be cameras in court, broadcasting proceedings?

I went to a debate held by the Media Society at the ITN building on Gray’s Inn Road on this topic on 18 October 2011, and my note on the proceedings is as follows:

On 6 September 2011, the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor Ken Clarke announced that the blanket ban on filming in courts was to be lifted as a way to increase public understanding of the justice system. The plan is to broadcast the sentencing remarks of Court of Appeal judges, with a later move to those in the Crown Court. Witnesses, jurors, and deliberations would not be broadcast.

This move came after the criticism of sentencing and reasoning in light of the August riots. However, the notion of filming in court has been mooted for a long time, and the debate on the topic is not new. In light of this announcement, the Media Society held a panel discussion on cameras in court.

Alastair Stewart, ITN newsreader of long standing, was the Chair for the event, and the following were the panellists:

Prof E Barendt;

John Battle (ITN Head of Complaince);

Simon Bucks (Sky News);

Sir Ivan Lawrence QC;

Fran Unsworth (BBC); and

John Whittingdale MP.

Stewart started with a few remarks about the background to the topic, point both to Clarke’s announcement and the UKSC’s broadcasts. He also noted that Scottish courts sometimes allow it for cases of public interest, but there has been varied success with the scheme. He continued by saying that while TV has a role in increasing confidence in the criminal justice system, some critical thinking needs to be done about how to make it work to the tastes of the parties involved, both those involved in the proceedings, and those broadcasting them.

Following a video by Mark Austin which set out an introduction to the debate as well as some initial points for both sides, the discussion got underway.

[AF note: two things stood out for me in the video: firstly, I never knew that the debate about film and photographs in court dated from the Dr Crippen trial in 1910, with photography being banned 15 years later; and that the first major push for the debate in modern times was as a result of the Louise Woodward trials in the US].

Whittingdale started by commenting that he was surprised it has taken this long to get a point where courts proceedings will be televised, considering how simple, easy and natural it seems as part of the #Leveson inquiry. His comments followed along the same lines as a speech given by the Master of the Rolls about proceedings and judgments being given in public already, noting that the public don’t scrutinise them by visiting courts. He noted that the arguments for cameras in court are very like those made for the televising of Parliament, and that the behaviour of MPs has not changed much [AF note: there always seems to be a lot more people in the public gallery in Parliament than in a court though]. Certainly, the now very well-known footage of Murdochs Senior and Junior in front of the Select Committee commanded a huge audience, but perhaps this was due to the range of interest in the subject matter, as few people would have seen it otherwise.

Moving on to Sir Ivan Lawrence QC, his rebuttal focused on the notion that Parliament is not concerned with the activity in courts, and the courts are targeted on individuals, not issues. As such, the two cannot be held to be the same. His fear is that the proceedings could be tainted:

  1. advocates are very unlikely to grandstand, but there is always the temptation;
  2. justice is a delicate matter, and the perceptions of the non-lawyers involved may mean they are less willing to take an active role; and
  3. judges will be constantly thinking about whether something can be broadcast or not.

An important pointt Lawrence raised is that there is very little considered when someone is acquitted, as the media simply does not allow the stigma to to fall away.

Fran Unsworth of the BBC followed by saying that it is a valid experiment as it supports open justice, and naturally the BBC has a role in educating people. She noted that England and Wales is lagging behind other jurisdictions, even though this type of broadcast improves transparency. The question is whether a reporter should take this role or whether people should have direct access to it.

Unsworth felt that there is a sense of double standards, as tweeting is allowed in court but cameras are not, though of course camera equipment technology has improved dramatically so it would not take up nearly as much space as feared. She felt that the proposals were too limited as the the public would be bored and the chance wasted. Any worries that hearings would become a media circus should remember that US trials like the OJ Simpson trials were unique for obvious reasons.

Simon Bucks of Sky News followed; he pointed out that broadcasts of the House of Commons have been the norm for nearly 22 years, and now it all seems innocuous and unsurprising. That the trials for Parliamentary expenses fraud were not broadcast, despite the public interest (both meanings), was strange, as it is a core part of democracy to see such events. It must be remembered that people with day jobs or who works away from courts location do not have access to justice in the sense of a viewer or a consumer. Bucks continued by saying that broadcasters have been running a steady campaign for years on this topic, and saw the riots hearings as a perfect example of what could be achieved.

Professor Barendt admitted straight away that he comes at the concept as a sceptic, especially noting that the progression to the Crown Court could be more interesting, as the participants are usually more unwilling. His main concern that is the broadcasters will use their discretion to cover more newsworthy trials, and not local or civil matters. He wonders whether it would leave to mandatory gavel-to-gavel coverage as in the USA, or only extracts; the choice requires an editorial distinction. He agreed that we need to think about the reputation of an acquitted defendant given that the media can shape views and ideas.

John Battle started by mentioning that he has also been heavily involved in the background to the campaign, having met the Lord Chief Justice years before on the matter (prior to Judge LJ being the LCJ). However, he stated very simply that filming is not a revolutionary idea; the courts the British public don’t get to see are their own, and the images available are scarce and very selective.

Returning to earlier concerns, he believed that there is very little evidence to support worries about disruption to advocates, and no evidence about the loss of protection for vulnerable witnesses. Judges will also be able to control the filming, in line with the rules for protected applications. He went on to say that the experiment can help feed the debate and assure those in proceedings what will happen. There will be better reporting of trials, and will also show the public just how informed and knowledgeable both judges and counsel are.

Questions from the floor:

Joshua Rozenberg asked why the Lord Chancellor has agreed to this now; are the government concerned the public aren’t well-informed? And would reporting on TV show the judges as capable of supporting and sympathising?

JW responded that he wasn’t sure why, but there is a definitely a growing feeling for openness in this government, something JB agreed with. IL is supportive of broadcasting judgments, something EB agrees with but there is a caveat that the media need to work closely with the LCJ to ensure standards on both sides are maintained, especially as the media needs to respect a judicial decision to not have a camera in court. FU believes that the plans do not go far enough, and that the audience would benefit from hearing the arguments.

Bob Satchell of the Society of Editors said that he feels it is a bit innocent to believe that the word rapist would no longer be used in association with an acquitted defendant. IL agreed, saying that a lifetime of working in courts says that the public don’t see someone as acquitted, but as an acquitted rapist. JB says that legislation would be required to ensure that it is done fairly, but the regulators already exist to protect defendants; he also wonders why the statements and summing up could not also be included to give a more rounded picture. JW believes that this trial would increasingly remove the stigma as they can understand why a decision was reached. SB points out that the proposition would be introduced incrementally, and that the nature of media coverage is selective.

A question asked about whether legal terminology and arguments would be explained. FU felt that that is not what is of interest, but the principle of broadcasting remains. She felt it is like Parliament, some of the debates are electric, but most of it is boring.

In response to a point raised by Stewart again about liberty and reputation, IL stated that it is important to ensure that the stream of justice is not polluted. FU says that people are selective already in what they write, so they should not expect anything different about broadcasts. IL points that this may also make an increasing problem with juror research worse.

After some personal comments directed at IL, EB defended his co-panellist and espoused the view that there is no right to see a criminal trial, which could be supported by a very narrow reading of Article 6 ECHR. FU accepts that this is true, but states that the judge would have control; the important thing to consider would then be why the trial could not be viewed.

A question from the floor made a point that journalists would select trials based upon what they think, so would it better to consult the public on what they wish to see? IL reiterated the point that most court proceedings are dull, and dipping in and out gives a poor understanding of how proceedings work. FU for the most part agreed, saying that people need to be allowed to choose themselves. However IL thinks that it is more a practical issue which would add to judicial workloads. SB mentioned a red stop button for judges to stop a live stream and wondered whether this would be an option for criminal trials. JB points out there still need to be a clear delineation between editorial and judicial controls.

Mark Stephens of FSL pointed out that the Commonwealth has evidence related to broadcast proceedings, and notes that the populace of each country was just as concerned as those here, but the broadcasts work. He points to a prosecutor following the Vancouver riots who felt it was important to have justice seen to be done, and done openly. EB responded by saying that selectivity is a very unattractive proposition, and it was noticeable that a media conference in Beijing pointed to the criminal justice system in England and Wales as lacking in freedom of speech.

A question from the floor about how filming courts could make celebrity defendants and glamourise the facts was responded to by SB saying the visual consequences may act as a deterrent. FU says that it would make no difference to the impact of a case, as such as case would be well known enough anyway; the paper press creates the marketability.

Another question from the floor made a point about scrutiny of justice, and the need to distinguish between open and transparent democracy and how journalism works [AF note: this is also something I thought about, will there be a need for legal pundits to explain the rationale behind judgments?]. Another question asked whether reporters would use footage to increase their ratings. JW said that it would be a slow process of increasing access, as there is a clear need to work out how the system would work, but JB said that it is important it happens as the open justice system here is very weak. JW continued by saying that the Murdoch pie incident in itself was good news, but the irritation comes from the fact that a pie could make it into a Select Committee hearing.

IL moved the discussed back to selectivity and pointed to current examples in the news about a focus on views concerning a defendant and their families, and the witnesses, which could be viewed by jurors. JB disagreed with this, pointing the trial of Conrad Murray in the USA, and the role of jurors and their oath in proceedings. However, EB and IL pointed out that people can get their information about cases from papers anyway.

Some final remarks:

EB feels that TV coverage of trials will exacerbate unfair influence on the criminal justice system, but the coverage itself will be more sensational than the trial.

IL believes that there has been no public demand for this, as the public see there are dangers to justice [AF note: or they may just see it as too dull].

Finally, JW believes that the trial will go ahead and will be extended, especially with improving technology. A mention in the Queen’s Speech could show proper commitment to the process.

Where are we now?

Now we have the campaign reaching a new strength, with BBC, Sky, and ITN writing to the heads of the political parties to gain their support for broadcasting courts. It cannot be denied that the principle is a sound one, but my concern is more about the practicality. Putting aside all the worries about grandstanding and witness protection, for which I am sure protocols would be developed, what good would broadcasting court proceedings actually do?

Watching my Twitter timeline, at times it is fascinating to see that people tune into web broadcasts of the Supreme Court and Parliamentary proceedings while they are at work. However, these are people with an interest in the matter at hand, be they wanting to see the outcome of a trial, or just marvelling at the levels of advocacy. How many of the people the broadcasters say cameras in court will reach actually care? My guess is not many. Also, how many people will be able to watch court proceedings live? How many will watch them on catch-up TV? Probably more for the latter, but still those not able to catch it will go for one of the excellent round-ups that is provided by other sources. I can’t quite imagine people wanting to avoid news of a verdict in a case quite the same way as avoiding the football scores.

Another concern is that courts are odd places at times, with some very archaic expressions and behaviours still used in the more traditional proceedings. Would the broadcasters just leave their audience with the proceedings, or would they provide a talking head or two to explain what is being broadcast? A lot of the court proceedings broadcast already are watched by practitioners or those with a good understanding of what is happening, but to watch Supreme Court tv with a bare understanding of what is happening will not improve anyone’s knowledge or experience of the justice system. There are excellent bloggers out there explaining the law, cases and developlments; The Judicial Office is getting extremely good at putting cases and remarks of interest on its website for people to find; and the Supreme Court publishes its judgments with press releases and summaries to help explain the decision reached. There so far has been no comment by the broadcasters about what they will do with the information gleaned from the broadcast. Each has used experts in the past to discuss important cases and developments, but there was no mention of such explanation in the debate, nor in any subsequent media (if someone can find it, please do show it to me). The public will still be left with the same information; it will be presented in a new, instant way, but still with the same level of understanding of what is happening and what is being said.

While I agree with the principle that justice should be seen to be done, cameras in court as they stand simply appear to be improving democracy in style only. Transparency has become a watchword of this government, turning something fundamental to popular democracy into a tickbox exercise. It is my belief that it is not the presentation of the information that matters, it is what you do with it and how we understand it that matters.

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Filed under Debates, Justice Systems, Media, Personal Comment