Schillings: Leveson Report Offers Food for Thought on Digital Privacy

Lord Justice Leveson suggests that because the internet is seen as an “ethical vacuum”, people don’t set much store by what they read on it. That has not been our experience, says Jenny Afia of Schillings

Many senior journalists were quick to criticise the Leveson Report for containing one solitary page on internet publishing. This, they claimed, proved the 2,000-page document failed to grasp the significance of the digital landscape.

Rather than jumping to convenient conclusions, a fairly cursory read of Lord Justice Leveson’s report shows that digital media is, in fact, a clear and constant theme – with evidence from Google, Twitter and bloggers such as Guido Fawkes referred to throughout. It was somewhat ironic given part of the report’s remit was press accuracy that journalists didn’t read it fully before commenting.

That’s not to say that we agree with all of Mr Justice Leveson’s views in relation to the internet. In particular, he suggests that because the internet is seen as an “ethical vacuum”, people don’t set much store by what they read on it. That has not been our experience. If a false claim is published by an anonymous, even an obscure blog, that lurks on a person’s Google search results, it can cause real upset.

Read more: How to protect your privacy in the digital age

For instance, if someone is about to sit down with a journalist for an interview or with a prospective business partner for a meeting, they’ll be far more worried knowing a scandalous claim is the first thing the person on the other side of the table will have seen about them. Lord Justice Leveson’s views on this particular point seem somewhat outmoded in a world where 571 new websites are created per minute and 340 million tweets are sent per day.

But beyond that point, Lord Justice Leveson provides a thoughtful analysis on how people don’t always understand the consequences of their own behaviour in the new digital environment. Social media is a good example. Lord Justice Leveson argues that the explosion in the use of it, particularly by the young, has not yet been matched by an understanding of the implications of the choices that people make in placing private material online.

Read more: An interview with top privacy lawyer Keith Schilling

Many do so unwisely or naively, not appreciating the extent to which they are compromising their privacy. The press will then seize on such examples to intrude on the person’s privacy. If adequate steps haven’t been taken to control someone’s privacy settings – not just in the online sense but in the broader one of how they live their lives generally – they could plummet from having a strong expectation of privacy, despite their public profile, to engaging in a desperate fight to maintain control.

Whether Lord Justice Leveson’s proposals are adopted or not remains to be seen. Either way, he helpfully highlights the challenges we all face in the “personal information economy”. It’s clear that the responsibility to control what information is publically available about a person must start with the individual themselves.

Jenny Afia is a partner at Schillings

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