Leveson: Google, Twitter New Threats to Privacy

Justice Brian Leveson - P 2012
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The justice who presided over the U.K. phone hacking inquiry talks about privacy and the Internet at a privacy forum in Sydney but refuses to discuss his report released last week.

SYDNEY – Attendees at Friday’s Privacy in the 21st Century forum hoping for an inside look at the reasoning behind Justice Lord Brian Leveson’s 2,000-page report into media ethics in the wake of the News of The World phone hacking scandal that engulfed Rupert Murdoch's News International, left disappointed.

Leveson neatly sidestepped discussion of the report released last week as the keynote speaker at the conference organized by the Communications Law Center of the University of Technology in Sydney.

"I treat the report as a judgment, and a judgment must speak for itself. Judges simply do not enter into discussion about judgments," he said.

Nevertheless he said he was "watching developments in the U.K. with interest."

Newspaper editors from all the British papers met earlier this week and signed up to implement 40 of the 47 recommendations made by Leveson, but fell short of agreeing to statutory underpinning for the new press regulator.

The editors proposed a new regulatory body which will have serving editors on its board, like the old defunct Press Complaints Commission, and will have the powers to levy fines of up to $1.6 million.

Instead, Leveson talked about the need for new laws governing privacy in the age of the Internet, a subject little touched on in his report.

The Internet, he said was surrounded by an element of "mob rule" where naming and shaming people's behavior online often resulted in "a danger of real harm being done, and in some cases harm which is both permanent and disproportionate."

Said Leveson: "There is not only danger of trial by Twitter, but also of an unending punishment, and no prospect of rehabilitation, via Google."

He told the gathered audience at the conference that 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."

"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.

He also referenced the recent BBC Newsnight program debacle, and Thursday's phone call by two Australian radio DJs pretending to be the Queen and Prince Charles, to the hospital looking after the Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton, who is suffering from severe morning sickness early in her pregnancy.

"While established legal norms are in many respects capable of application to the Internet, it is likely that new ones and new laws will need to be developed," he said.

And he believed that time and new laws will help moderate issues.

"It will start to modulate behavior, 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 behavior and help to reinforce social norms," Leveson said.

But only as new laws are developed, "will we properly understand the role and values which underpin privacy and freedom of expression, the balance to be struck between them and the means to ensure that they are both safeguarded in an Internet age," he said.