Britain’s privacy debate digs deeper

I appealed recently for Britain’s editors to take the trouble better to define and defend their positions over privacy because I think that, eventually, the law will change. Only one editor did so (and that was coincidental), but the argument about privacy has dug a bit deeper than before. A quick roundup.

  • Kenan Malik, after a radio debate on the subject, posted this trenchant and radical position.
  • The director of the Press Complaints Commission gave his first interview at length.
  • It turns out that Britain is not the only country where this is a live topic: privacy is changing in China and India as well.
  • Very few writers can be both smart and funny about a subject like privacy. This one can.
  • A useful tour of current arguments from John Kampfner of Index.

Two more footnote replies to queries raised by my earlier assertion that if the law is going to change, editors had better help define it. Charlie Beckett of Polis commented that he couldn’t see how a new law might work. “I just can’t see how,” he said, “in practice, a privacy law works in the Internet age.” With internet sites out of reach of domestic jurisdictions, won’t we just have to settle for less law in this area?

Law in this area won’t work the same way. In the digital era, no national law which regulates communication is going to be as watertight as in the days of print and mainstream broadcasting. But I don’t think that invalidates the idea of updating and improving law. Laws are often porous and, in the short run, be made to look ineffectual, as the current privacy “superinjunctions” do to those who go looking on the internet for the names they are supposed to shield. But nevertheless law can always bite on established channels and outlets inside its jurisdiction and that will still be able to affect what the majority of people know or don’t.

In another reply to my argument, David Aaronovitch of The Times (£) took me to task for suggesting that people who seek elective office have surrendered their right to privacy. I laid myself open to this counter-attack by failing to qualify who might fall into the category of such elected people. My aim had been not to produce a comprehensive list of examples of whose privacy deserved protection and when, but to illustrate how a better-deliberated law which hinged on a public interest defence to privacy claims might need to be thrashed out.

For the record, I don’t think that being elected to a parish council would eliminate anyone’s right to claim privacy and nor do I think that the law should allow a “zillionaire banker” enjoy privacy when the parish councillor can’t. That would plainly be wrong.

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