This article originally appeared on Comment is Free on guardian.co.uk
Poor practice tends to get in the way of good intentions. During a meeting at the foreign office a few weeks ago, I gently reminded the decent-minded mandarins that they had a problem: Britain’s role in pushing internet freedom, and freedom of expression more generally, was being undermined by our own government departments. Trouble with rioters last summer? Well, go after BlackBerry messengers, David Cameron suggested, until it was pointed out to him that this was exactly the sort of thing the Egyptian and Tunisian regimes tried to do during the Arab spring.
Now, Britain’s parliamentarians, in all their familiar bluster, have come up with a new wheeze: why not order search engines to go on a giant trawl and delete – not only from their searches but from the internet itself – any material that is deemed to invade privacy?
“Google and other search engines should take steps to ensure that their websites are not used as vehicles to breach the law and should actively develop and use such technology,” reads the report published today by the joint Lords and Commons committee on privacy and injunctions. Translate these words into Russian or Mandarin and you can imagine the uproar.
Just in case these uppity tech firms don’t get the point, our MPs and peers recommend that if they refuse to censor voluntarily, they should be forced to do so through legislation. Our traditionally insular parliamentarians had, at least, the foresight to acknowledge that such “pro-active monitoring … may not be consistent” with the EU’s directive on e-commerce, but what the heck, why not give it a go?
The government is likely to thank the committee for its deliberations, and then give them a wide berth. In any case, everyone is waiting on Lord Justice Leveson’s hacking inquiry this autumn. The questioning I received in January at the hands of Leveson’s leading QC was more arduous, and informed, than the grand-standing of the committee. I was struck, when giving evidence in parliament in November, by their ignorance about the digital world. One of the few MPs who understands the issues, the Lib Dems’ Martin Horwood, tweeted straight after that session about the “embarrassing rudeness” and “ignorance about internet” from his “colleagues”.
Google (who, to declare an interest, I now advise part-time on freedom of expression) already complies with “take-down” requests by national authorities. However, if the content is legal in another state, it remains visible in that nation. These requests are now listed in a regular “transparency report“. What Google do not do is embark on giant fishing expeditions, acting as the global censor of taste, decency, legality and privacy.
Max Mosley, who successfully sued the News of the World over his privacy – appears to have seduced the committee. Not only have they bought completely his complaints that search engines have failed to erase in perpetuity all “offending pictures” of him, but they nearly bought his idea that all journalists be legally obliged to give prior notification to anyone they might be planning to write or broadcast about. His application was resoundingly thrown out by the European court of human rights – Index on Censorship was among those objecting to the application – but still the committee has recommended that Britain’s new beefed-up press regulator should require prior notification, “unless there are compelling reasons not to”.
The one, and perhaps only, innovative idea in this copious report is to put the onus on newspaper company directors to take responsibility for standards. One of the points that seems to be lost in the phone-hacking privacy maelstrom is that this has been much more a problem of the nexus between politicians, police and media moguls than it is about day-to-day journalism.
It is perhaps no surprise that parliamentarians are no great fans of the fourth estate. It was they who, still smarting after the expenses scandal, sought to exempt the issue from freedom of information scrutiny.
The UK needs a more professional and rigorous regulatory system. It needs executives and non-executives to be held more accountable for their actions. But this country already has some of the most restrictive laws in the democratic world, particularly when it comes to defamation and surveillance.
This report is replete with affirmations about the importance of free expression. MPs and peers talk a good talk, but fail to understand that – while improvements must be made to standards – the only people who benefit from a clampdown are the rich and powerful. Look at Hungary’s hideous new press law, with its statutes on licensing and other measures that some of the witnesses to Leveson have advocated. Look at France, where generations of politicians have claimed privacy to evade scrutiny on their financial misdemeanours. Ask yourself: does our media find out too much or too little about what is done in our name? It is no wonder that our politicians then seek to tame these feral beasts.
John Kampfner is the outgoing chief executive of Index