Independence of the Press is Key to Any Leveson Reform

It is heartening to read Alan Rusbridger’s editorial in The Guardian of 25 March 2013, as he seems to have become more aware of some of the serious weaknesses in the proposed press regulation, which has changed in ways that may have undermined his early support. See: http://www.tandfonline.com/toc/rics20/current He calls attention to the private meetings with Hacked Off, the imposition of punitive damages on those who don’t sign up to the regulator, and the power of the regulator to direct papers to print apologies – even where to place them. Hardly an independent press nor an independent regulator. He notes: “The advocates of reform – including the Guardian – should be unenthusiastic about endorsing a messy compromise with unintended consequences and with the prospect of years of stalemate in the courts and with the regulator itself.” Mr Rusbridger does complain that few people raised concerns over freedom of the press during early private meetings among editors, but I should hope that all of the stakeholders see the value of public debate on issues that threaten the independence of the press, and freedom of expression online. Perhaps there is hope that politicians will get off this escalator towards inappropriate press regulation and take the time to find a resolution that does not threaten the independence of the press and impose governmental controls on bloggers and expression online.

I’ve expressed my own worries online: http://people.oii.ox.ac.uk/dutton/2013/03/20/how-politicians-can-endorse-a-statutory-press-regulator-and-what-can-be-done/

What Can You Say Online?

The Economist recently addressed the chilling effect that libel law is likely to have on Twitter, arguing that: ‘Now it [Twitter] seems to fall under the law’s shadow to a greater extent than similar speech does on the offline world’ (November 24, 2012: 37). But it is not simply libel law that could undermine freedom of expression online, it is also criminal laws addressing speech in largely pre-Internet aware days.

Taken together, Internet users – three-quarters of the British public – must be wondering what they can say online. For those in doubt in the aftermath of some actions taken against Twitter users and other online netizens, you may find a recent blog by Roger Darlington to be a helpful place to start in thinking seriously about this question.

Roger Darlington, a former member of the Consumer Panel at Ofcom, has posted a blog, entitled ‘What can’t you say on the Internet?’. He lays on the various viewpoints on this question, as well as UK legislation of relevance. You can read his blog at http://www.rogerdarlington.me.uk/commswatch/?p=4647 Take a look at Section 127 of the Communications Act of 2003, along with Section 1 of the Malicious Communications Act 1988.

I hope you read this for yourself, but Roger argues that a strict interpretation of UK law could underpin ‘a staggering amount of content to be prosecuted under the criminal law.’ This leads him to conclude that it is time to modernize law and regulation. From his perspective, which I share, there is a need to protect speech online such that people are not subject to inappropriate or disproportionate punishments for such things as tweeting a bad joke or expressing a viewpoint that might be viewed as malicious or indecent.

Consider Roger’s viewpoint and let me know if you have a constructive view on this topic. Roger believes there should be more consistency across media, while I believe that the different communication infrastructures are different in ways that require unique regulatory frameworks. It may be that striving for consistency has led to this disproportionate coverage of online expression. In any case, I agree that this issue will only grow in importance as more communication shifts to the Internet. Consumers need to know what they can and cannot say or this uncertainty alone could have a chilling effect on speech.

There will be an increasing array of issues driven by the convergence of media and the Internet. Content regulation is certainly one key example of such an issue. Over decades, standards of expression on television have become relatively well understood, even if they are sometimes breached and the subject of complaints. But the Internet is not television and is not and – it seems to me – cannot be regulated like television. As but one example, 72 hours of video are posted on YouTube every minute, and this is only one of many video sites on the Internet.

I hope you find Roger’s blog helpful – eye opening – in framing this issue for consumers and netizens. It also provides a nice example of law not keeping up with technological change, and becoming an unintended but unanticipated constraint on technological change. If I have this wrong, let me know.

China and the New Internet World at Oxford University: 13 and 14 June 2013

The OII is involved with a wide range of collaborating partners in the organization of two joined events focused on China and the New Internet World.

Running over two days, the first event on Friday, 14 June 2013, will be an pre-conference to the 2013 International Communication Association’s Annual Conference. The preconference will be held in Oxford at the OII and other units at the University of Oxford, while the following ICA Conference will be held in London. The call for papers invites academics to address how the phenomenal rise of China and the Asian region on the Internet could be reshaping the global Internet, but also how the global Internet is reshaping communication and media in China and the Asian region. Information about travel and lodging for the ICA preconference is at https://www.icahdq.org/conf/2013/confdescriptions.asp. The call for papers for this ICA preconference is at http://www.oii.ox.ac.uk/events/?id=555

The preconference will be followed by a dinner at Balliol College on the 14th. This is a separate event, but those who attend the ICA preconference or the following day’s event may enquire about space at the dinner at events at oii.ox.ac.uk. The dinner will close the preconference, but open the following day’s conference on China and the New Internet World as the 11th Chinese Internet Research Conference (CIRC).

On the next day, Saturday, we will be holding the Eleventh Chinese Internet Research Conference (CIRC11). This conference is open to a wider range of topics about the Chinese Internet, but we hope the two joined events will be as complementary as possible. We invite the submission of papers for this event. Instructions and more information about CIRC11 is available online at: http://www.oii.ox.ac.uk/events/?id=549

We hope that connecting events into a series will help to highlight one of the most significant developments around the New Internet World, one theme of OII research over the last years, as China and Asia continue to shift the centre of gravity of global Internet use.

Both events are being jointly organized by the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) in collaboration with the Programme of Comparative Media Law and Policy (PCMLP) and the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ) at the University of Oxford, in partnership with the Chinese Internet Research Conference (CIRC), the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism at USC, the Center for Global Communications Studies at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, the Global Communication Research Institute at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, the Centre for Chinese Media and Comparative Communication Research (C-Centre) at the School of Journalism and Communication at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), the Department of Communication at the University of Macau, and Singapore Internet Research Center at Nanyang Technological University. We are also grateful to Taylor and Francis/Routledge, publishers of Information Communication and Society (iCS) and the Chinese Journal of Communication, among many other journals relevant to the study of the Internet and related media and communication technologies and society, for their sponsorship.

Thanks for considering your involvement. If you have questions, you may contact ‘events at oii.ox.ac.uk’ about China and the New Internet World.

Robin Mansell’s ‘Imagining the Internet’

I had the honor of participating in a launch of Robin Mansell’s new book, Imagining the Internet (Oxford University Press, 2012). Here is a podcast of the launch, featuring an overview by Robin.
Download: Audio, Video, Slides – R MansellSpeaker(s): Professor Robin Mansell, Professor William H Dutton, Professor Robert Wade
Chair: Professor Sonia Livingstone

Recorded on 16 October 2012 in Sheikh Zayed Theatre, New Academic Building.

Big challenges face policy makers trying to balance conflicting interests in the information society. This lecture examines why digital information and complex networks make policymaking especially difficult.

Robin Mansell is professor of new media and the internet at LSE and author of Imagining the Internet.

William H Dutton is professor of internet studies at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford.

Robert Wade is professor of political economy and development at LSE.

 

The Oxford Handbook of Internet Studies

The Oxford Handbook of Internet Studies is now available in print and OUP has created a Website for the book: http://ukcatalogue.oup.com/product/9780199589074.do  You can find Chapter 1, the introduction, on line and available free, if you’d like an overview of the Handbook. See: http://ukcatalogue.oup.com/product/9780199589074.do#.UQ6iIOg7i_E  It was published in late January 2013.

The first paragraph of the preface reads:

“Internet Studies is one of the most rapidly developing interdisciplinary fields of the early 21st Century. With the increasing significance of the Internet, and the range of issues surrounding its use and governance, the field is on a course to continue expanding in its range and diversity through the coming decades. Despite the pace of change, it is a time to take stock of this emerging field, examine current approaches to study of the Internet, and reflect on the field’s future. This was the key motivation behind this handbook.”

It has been published initially in hardback, but OUP usually bring out paperback versions of their handbooks in due course after first publication in hardback, I am hoping that is the case with The Oxford Handbook of Internet Studies.  Also the handbook will be uploaded to Oxford Handbooks Online (www.oxfordhandbooks.com), an online resource to which many institutions subscribe, and this should enable greater access to the material. So, I hope that for most people seriously interested in Internet Studies, that library acquisition and online access should enable access to the material, particularly if we can make the case for the paperback edition. I am very optimistic about the book’s reception, and therefore its eventual availability in paperback.

 

The Risk of ‘Privacy Impact Assessments’ – PIA in the Sky

I’ve run across the promotional material for a new book by David Wright and Paul De Hert, Privacy Impact Assessment, Springer, Dordrecht, 2012. They argue that the book ‘is timely as the European Commission’s proposal for a new Data Protection Regulation would make privacy impact assessments mandatory for any organisation processing “personal data where those processing operations are likely to present specific risks to the rights and freedoms of data subjects”. I find the whole idea of PIA to be far too uncritically accepted by far too many within the privacy community.

Stop the PIA

My own sense is that this sounds good, parallel to an ‘environmental impact assessment’ (EIA). But the history of EIA should clearly alert us to the risk that impact assessments are unlikely to prevent risks to privacy and data protection. To the contrary, they are likely to cover the backside of actors who can say they submitted a risk assessment, be limited to primarily a symbolic victory for privacy, and clearly raise the costs of all software and systems developments, creating a new set of businesses employed to write PIAs for organizations.

The concept of a privacy impact assessment is one of those initiatives that sounds good, and rings all the right bells to be politically popular, but that will not accomplish its intended aims and undoubtedly have negative, unintended consequences. I hope the privacy community takes a more critical look at the rhetoric in support of this bureaucratic silver bullet that carries its own risks.

Happy to receive comments, as I am sure my view is a minority opinion, but every discussion of the issue convinces me all the more that the PIA is a mistake. I hope some bright students begin to evaluate the actual impact of the PIA.

Single Issue Politics is Undermining the Internet

The worldwide diffusion of the Internet is one of the most promising technological developments of the 21st Century. Over 2 billion people use the Internet with large proportions of North America and West Europe online, but larger numbers of users – and growing fast – in such rapidly developing nations as Brazil, Russia, India and China, what I have called the ‘New Internet World’. For example, there are more Chinese online that Americans on the planet. It is a core infrastructure for economic development in developed and rapidly developing nations alike, and is enabling networked individuals to hold governments and other institutions accountable in ways that are as powerful as the press in earlier eras, such as in the significant role the Internet’s social networking platforms played in the Arab uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa.

However, the vitality of the Internet, Web and related technologies is being placed at risk by an ideologically blinkered standoff between two single-issue groups – one seeking to protect copyright versus another protecting freedom of expression. The Internet and Web grew out of a culture of sharing and free expression within academic communities, but to this day, over 40 years since the invention of the Internet, users around the world are very supportive of online freedom of expression. In fact, Internet users in the New Internet World are as supportive of free expression as are those in the Old Internet World of North America and West Europe. And support is growing with experience with the Internet. Given the high levels of support for this underlying culture of Internet use, it should not be surprising that threats to freedom of expression have created major counter-reactions.

Threats have come from legislation aimed at criminalizing and putting a stop to illegal file sharing of music, films and other copyrighted materials, such as through the UK’s Digital Economy Act and, in the US, through the Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (Pipa). The music industry and other creative industries are trying to use the law to protect business models that are not sustainable in the digital age. These legislative routes to protecting copyright would have a chilling effect on the Internet, as they would usher in greater surveillance of Internet users, and governmental sanctioning of the blocking of Internet content as well as the disconnection of Internet users. That is why Wikipedia, Google and other responsible stakeholders in the Internet have protested SOPA and Pipa, such as by Wikipedia blocking its own content for one day.

At the very moment that protests over these legislative actions appeared to be gaining ground among US elected officials, the Department of Justice raised the stakes. It took the domain names of a file sharing Web site (Megaupload) offline, charged its founders with violating piracy laws, and arrested four employees. In response, an Internet ‘hackivist’ group, Anonymous, launched a denial of service attack on FBI, DoJ, and music industry Web sites. The actions of nearly every stakeholder in this conflict have been seriously uncompromising.

In the short-run, it is time to talk and to stop these flame wars. Each side has failed to be open to discussion, but that is exactly what is needed. In the long-term, the creative industries must focus on new business models that are sustainable in the digital era. Government can help support the research and development to enable these innovations.

More generally, all stakeholders need to understand that freedom of expression and copyright cannot be pursued as single issues. Both are part of a larger ecology of policies that have major interactions. Responsible policy discussions need to reign in single-issue politics. It is tempting to say that freedom of expression trumps all other values and interests, but the evidence is right before us that freedom of expression is being eroded by copyright, liability, privacy and data protection, public safety and other concerns. Single-issue political posturing could undermine the Internet’s future.

References

Dutta, S., Dutton, W. H. and Law, G. (2011), The New Internet World: A Global Perspective on Freedom of Expression, Privacy, Trust and Security Online: The Gobal Information Technology Report 2010-2011. New York: World Economic Forum, April. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1810005

Dutton, W. H., Dopatka, A., Hills, M., Law, G., and Nash, V. (2011), Freedom of Connection – Freedom of Expression: The Changing Legal and Regulatory Ecology Shaping the Internet. Paris: UNESCO, Division for Freedom of Expression, Democracy and Peace.