Legislation should be considered as a way of forcing Internet companies such as Google to block content that breaches privacy inunctions, an influential cross-party Committee of MPs has recommended.
The Joint Committee on Privacy and Injunctions was set up by UK Prime Minister David Cameron in May 2011 to suggest ways to iron out some of the extraordinary anomalies that have recently opened up in the system of privacy injunctions.
Typically, these have involved print and broadcast media obeying court privacy injunctions brought on behalf of individuals seeking to stop the publication of stories about their private life which were then breached en-masse through online services such as Google, Facebook and Twitter.
This led to the absurd situation where conventional media outlets could not publish stories that were otherwise widely known to the public from stories or public comment made via the the Internet.
“It is important that court orders apply to all forms of media equally. The growth of the internet and social networking platforms is a positive development for freedom of expression, but new media cannot be seen to be outside the reach of the law,” the Committee's newly-published report said.
“We also recommend that major corporations, such as Google, take practical steps to limit the potential for breaches of court orders through use of their products and, if they fail to do so, legislation should be introduced to force them to.”
The Committee had taken submissions from individuals involved in high-profile cases, including former FIA motor racing president, Max Mosley, who complained that Google had refused to remove images that been deemed a breach of his privacy when asked to do so.
The MPs rejected Google’s argument was that even if technically possible, it should not be forced to filter content as an intermediary.
“Where an individual has obtained a clear court order that certain material infringes their privacy and so should not be published we do not find it acceptable that he or she should have to return to court repeatedly in order to remove the same material from internet searches,” the Committee said.
Beyond threatening legal sanctions against companies such as Google, as expected the MPs also recommended that the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) be reinvented with greater powers to adjudicate between companies and individuals. The PCC had been out of its depth when dealing with “systemic and illegal invasions of privacy,” the Committee said.
However, the Committee rejected the notion that the privacy laws themselves should be extended, arguing that the current system based on case-by-case judgments represented the best mechanism for balancing privacy with press freedom.