Leveson: the Internet Pops In

The following post was originally published by Gary Herman on the NUJ New Media blog. It’s reproduced here with permission.

Here at Newmedia Towers we are being swamped by events which at long last are demonstrating that the internet is really rather relevant to the whole debate about media ethics and privacy. So this is by way of a short and somewhat belated survey of the news tsunami – Google, Leveson, Twitter, ACTA, the EU and more.

When Camilla Wright, founder of celebrity gossip site Popbitch (which some years ago broke the news of Victoria Beckham’s pregnancy possibly before she even knew about it), testified before Leveson last week (26 January 2012) [Guardian liveblog; Wright’s official written statement (PDF)] the world found out (if it could be bothered) how Popbitch is used by newspaper hacks to plant stories so that they can then be said to have appeared on the internet. Anyone remember the Drudge report, over a decade ago?

Wright, of course, made a somewhat lame excuse that Popbitch is a counterweight to gossip magazines which are full of stories placed by the PR industry.

But most interesting is the fact that Wright claimed that Popbitch is self-regulated and that it works.

Leveson pronounced that he is not sure there is ‘so much of a difference’ between what Popbitch does and what newspapers do – which is somehow off the point. Popbitch – like other websites – has a global reach by definition and Wright told the Inquiry that Popbitch tries to comply with local laws wherever it was available – claims also made more publicly by Google and Yahoo! when they have in the past given in to Chinese pressure to release data that actually or potentially incriminated users and, more recently, by Twitter when it announced its intention to regulate tweets on a country-by-country basis.

Trivia – like the stuff Popbitch trades – aside, the problem is real. A global medium will cross many jurisdictions and be accessible within many different cultures. What one country welcomes, another may ban. And who should judge the merits of each?

Confusing the internet with its applications

The Arab Spring showed us that social media – like mobile phones, CB radios, fly-posted silkscreen prints, cheap offset litho leaflets and political ballads before them – have the power to mobilise and focus dissent. Twitter’s announcement should have been expected – after all, tweeting was never intended to be part of the revolutionaries’ tool-kit.

There are already alternatives to Twitter – Vibe, Futubra, Plurk, Easy Chirp and Blackberry Messenger, of course – and the technology itself will not be restrained by the need to expand into new markets. People confuse the internet with its applications – a mistake often made by those authorities who seek to impose a duty to police content on those who convey it.

Missing the point again, Leveson asked whether it would be useful to have an external ombudsman to advise Popbitch on stories and observed that a common set of standards across newspapers and websites might also help.

While not dismissing the idea, Wright made the point that the internet made it easy for publications to bypass UK regulators.

This takes us right into the territory of Google, Facebook and the various attempts by US and international authorities to introduce regulation and impose duties on websites themselves to police them.

ACTA, SOPA and PIPA

The latest example is the Anti-Counterfeit Trade Agreement (ACTA) – a shadowy international treaty which, according to Google’s legal director, Daphne Keller, speaking over a year ago, has ‘metastasized’ from a proposal on border security and counterfeit goods to an international legal framework covering copyright and the internet.

According to a draft of ACTA, released for public scrutiny after pressure from the European Union, internet providers who disable access to pirated material and adopt a policy to counter unauthorized ‘transmission of materials protected by copyright’ will be protected against legal action.

Fair use rights would not be guaranteed under the terms of the agreement.

Many civil liberty groups have protested the process by which ACTA has been drafted as anti-democratic and ACTA’s provisions as draconian.

Google’s Keller described ACTA as looking ‘a lot like cultural imperialism’.

Google later became active in the successful fight against the US Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the related Protect Intellectual Proerty Act (PIPA), which contained similar provisions to ACTA.

Google has been remarkably quite on the Megaupload case, however. This saw the US take extraterritorial action against a Hong Kong-based company operating a number of websites accused of copyright infringement.

The arrest of all Megaupload’s executives and the closure of its sites may have the effect of erasing perfectly legitimate and legal data held on the company’s servers – something which would on the face of it be an infringement of the rights of Megaupload users who own the data.

Privacy

Meanwhile, Google – in its growing battle with Facebook – has announced its intention to introduce a single privacy regime for 60 or so of its websites and services which will allow the company to aggregate all the data on individual users the better to serve ads.

Facebook already does something similar, although the scope of its services is much, much narrower than Google’s.

Privacy is at the heart of the current action against Google by Max Mosley, who wants the company to take down all links to external websites from its search results if those sites cover the events at the heart of his successful libel suit against News International.

Mosley is suing Google in the UK, France and Germany, and Daphne Keller popped up at the Leveson Inquiry, together with David-John Collins, head of corporate communications and public affairs for Google UK, to answer questions about the company’s policies on regulation and privacy.

Once again, the argument regarding different jurisdictions and the difficulty of implementing a global policy was raised by Keller and Collins.

Asked about an on-the-record comment by former Google chief executive, Eric Schmidt, that ‘only miscreants worry about net privacy’, Collins responded that the comment was not representative of Google’s policy on privacy, which it takes ‘extremely seriously’.

There is, of course, an interesting disjuncture between Google’s theoretical view of privacy and its treatment of its users. When it comes to examples like Max Mosley, Google pointed out – quite properly – that it can’t police the internet, that it does operate across jurisdictions and that it does ensure that there are comprehensive if somewhat esoteric mechanisms for removing private data and links from the Google listings and caches.

Yet it argues that, if individuals choose to use Google, whatever data they volunteer to the company is fair game for Google – even where that data involves third persons who may not have assented to their details being known or when, as happened during the process of building Google’s StreetView application, the company collected private data from domestic wi-fi routers without the consent or knowledge of the householders.

Keller and Collins brought their double-act to the UK parliament a few days later when they appeared before the joint committee on privacy and injunctions, chaired by John Whittingdale MP.

When asked why Google did not simply ‘find and destroy’ all instances of the images and video that Max Mosley objected to, they repeated their common mantras – Google is not the internet, and neither can nor should control the websites its search results list.

Accused by committee member Lord MacWhinney of ‘ducking and diving’ and of former culture minister, Ben Bradshaw of being ‘totally unconvincing’, Keller noted that Google could in theory police the sites it indexed, but that ‘doing so is a bad idea’.

No apparatus disinterested and qualified enough

That seems indisputable – regulating the internet should not be the job of providers like Google, Facebook or Twitter. On the contrary, the providers are the ones to be regulated, and this should be the job of legislatures equipped (unlike the Whittingdale committee) with the appropriate level of understanding and coordinated at a global level.

The internet requires global oversight – but we have no apparatus that is disinterested and qualified enough to do the job.

A new front has been opened in this battle by the latest draft rules on data protection issued by Viviane Reding’s Justice Directorate at the European Commission on 25 January.

Reding is no friend of Google or the big social networks and is keen to draw them into a framework of legislation that will – should the rules pass into national legislation – be coordinated at EU level.

Reding’s big ideas include a ‘right to be forgotten’ which will apply to online data only and an extension of the scope of personal data to cover a user’s IP address. Confidentiality should be built-in to online systems according to the new rules – an idea called ‘privacy by design’.

These ideas are already drawing flak from corporates like Google who point out that the ‘right to be forgotten’ is something that the company already upholds as far as the data it holds is concerned.

Reding’s draft rules includes an obligation by so-called ‘data controllers’ such as Google to notify third parties when someone wishes their data to be removed, so that links and copies can also be removed.

Not surprisingly, Google objects to this requirement which, if not exactly a demand to police the internet, is at least a demand to ‘help the police with their enquiries’.

The problem will not go away: how do you make sure that a global medium protects privacy, removes defamation and respects copyright while preserving its potential to empower the oppressed and support freedom of speech everywhere?

Answers on a postcard, please.

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2 thoughts on “Leveson: the Internet Pops In

  1. Mike Perez

    Is Google really being asked to police the internet? Surely all they are asked to do is obey the law, albeit in jurisdictions where, as you say, the law varies.

    Saying that Google is being asked to police the internet is a bit like saying I am asked to police the roads whenever I get in my car. The truth is I’m not. I’m asked to obey the law myself, not make other people obey the law.

    This is where the analogy with Google becomes clearer. No one would ask Google to stop illegal material being posted on the net. That would be unreasonable and Google anyway do not have the power.

    However things are less clear when Google reproduce illegal material on their own pages. For example linking the word “crook” with a French insurance company for which they were recently fined in France. Or, in the Mosley case, reproducing the illegal images on their own pages.

    Google’s first line of defence is that their crawlers are robots and simply provide links on the basis of predetermined algorithms. That doesn’t really work. It’s a bit like me building a robot which goes out and kills someone then saying ‘it wasn’t me, it was my robot’.

    Google then go into the freedom of speech arguments which of course are very jurisdiction-dependent.

    I think we will find that the pressure will go on the search engines and service providers to see that text and images are not reproduced in places where they are illegal. This will likely start in the EU.

    You could see the beginnings of this in Ms Keller’s uncomfortable meeting with the UK parliament’s joint committee which is well worth watching on the relevant player.

    Reply

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