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Podium: Self regulation in the Internet age

From a speech in Kuala Lumpur by the chairman of the Press Complaints Commission
THE INTERNET, cable and satellite, and electronic mail are all changing the pattern of our lives. The march of history and the technological revolution both favour the world-wide expansion of freedom of expression.

But that freedom could come with a price tag, and that is this: one person's access to information may all too easily become intrusion into another individual's privacy.

Let me explain what I mean a little more fully within the context of the work I do as chairman of the Press Complaints Commission. Central to the PCC's work is the protection of personal privacy. We uphold - as you know - a code, written by the newspaper industry, which stipulates that everyone is entitled to respect for his or her private life.

A century ago - before the telephoto lens, the bugging device, and easy access to a raft of electronic information - the task would have been much easier. An Englishman's home really was his castle; without fear of a long lens poking through the fence.

A century on, the task remains difficult enough, and although the PCC has changed substantially the way editors approach stories about individuals' private lives, the communications revolution is going to mean that from now on, just as ideas can be easily communicated across the globe, so can information about individuals be placed in the public domain.

In the same way that the introduction of the telegraph made the global market inevitable, so it is going to become harder and harder to keep private information private. As President Clinton has recently found out to his cost, the moment an individual is at the centre of controversy, information about him or her will appear on the Web. That means it will be on the public record - and that in turn means that newspapers will in most cases, although given the obvious burden of ensuring it is not defamatory, be legally entitled to publish it.

How can you protect personal privacy in an age when technology is undermining the ability of all of us to keep material private?

Certainly, it would be impossible to produce any form of global legislation that would ever be able to regulate a global communications market. No such forum exists in which it would be possible to do that, and, even were it so, technology would have moved on 10 paces before the ink was dry on a concordat.

In my view, where privacy laws exist, the global communications revolution will fatally weaken them. And where these do not exist, this revolution will make otiose the arguments of politicians and others in their favour.

To my mind, that means there is only one way to control the use - if not the supply - of all the private information which will become ever more widely available. And that is to apply to the problem an old and simple idea: that of self-regulation. In other words, that newspapers impose censorship on themselves, keeping private information about individuals, that is in the public domain of the Internet, out of the newspapers, except where there is a public interest in printing it.

Indeed, let me give you an excellent example from my own experience of precisely what I mean - taking the case, almost a year old now, of the son of a cabinet minister who was accused of selling drugs to a newspaper reporter investigating the case. The newspaper printed the story without the identity of the boy and his father, as the code of practice dictated. Other newspapers respected that course of action because of the strength of self regulation, and none of them printed the names of those involved, despite the fact that their identity was widely known. A few days later, law officers became involved in seeking an injunction to prevent publication of the name in the future. The court granted an injunction - at which point, with the law involved, the matter was out of my hands.

A newspaper, as you would expect, then went to court to have the injunction struck down. It was, because it was unsustainable. The court ruled that it would be perverse to prevent British newspaper readers having access to material that was available on the Internet, and on newspapers in France and Ireland.

The result of the intervention of the court was that newspapers then went ahead and named those involved.

The lesson was simple: voluntary self-restraint worked in a case where the law could not - and the future points in that direction.

We should therefore be seeking to do as much as we can to propagate the world-wide spread of these self-regulatory mechanisms.