ENDitorial: Phone hacking and self regulation
This article is also available in:
Deutsch: ENDitorial: Abhörskandale und Selbstregulierung
The self-regulatory authority for the British press, the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), has itself become one of the victims of the "phone hacking" scandal, as self-regulation failed to not alone prevent but even identify problems now believed to be endemic among UK newspapers.
Phone hacking - guessing or brute-force attacking voicemail accounts to access messages - is a criminal offence in the UK. Cases at the News of the World (NoW) were prosecuted under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), and could also be offences under the Computers Misuse Act. In 2007, private investigator Glen Mulcaire and NoW royal editor Clive Goodman were convicted and imprisoned for RIPA interception offences. Thus to date, the prosecutions have focused on reporters and investigators, rather than their employers at News International.
In May 2007, the PCC found that there was no evidence of widespread phone hacking at News of the World. Since that date, further allegations, investigations by Parliamentary committees and threats of private legal action have put pressure on the police to re-open the investigations. Allegations of the excessively close relationships between the police and News International and NoW, including possible payments, have meant that senior police officials at the Metropolitan (London) Police have now resigned.
One question that needs to be addressed is the extent to which "self regulation" has failed in this arena. With strong motivations from their members not to look at the behaviour of those same being regulated, the PCC might well be expected to fail. But this wasn't obvious when the PCC was set up.
The reasoning behind press self-regulation was at least more principled than that behind Internet "self regulation". The press, it was argued, needs to be strong and free. The methodology is also more coherent - it is, to a large extent, "self-"regulation, unlike much Internet "self-regulation", which is actually regulation of content or consumers by the Internet industry. Thus it was thought better for the press to impose their own rules, rather than relying on legislation and politicians, who have an inbuilt desire to control and limit their activities. Yet, it has comprehensively failed. A combination of high pressure for more sales in a declining market, an unsafe technology and malleable or inattentive enforcement let citizens' interests be ignored.
As it is often stated, but rarely politically accepted, once privacy is stripped away, the ability of those threatened with privacy abuses to speak out is vastly reduced. Thus, it was those who had already suffered exposure by the News of the World who had to be brave enough to speak out. The UK's political leadership was frequently too frightened to comment.
We may well ask why, if the PCC cannot balance the public interest, free speech, privacy and business interests, the behavioural advertisers and Internet Service Providers should be expected to do a better job. Purely pragmatically, self-regulation may be expected to work where the interests of end users are well-aligned with those doing the regulation: but where those are strongly divergent, they are unlikely to. Unfortunately, as the PCC has shown, the balance of interests can quickly shift with technology. Thus we are left to conclude that, in the absence of procedures and structures that are fit to cope with such shifts, legal protections and official regulators are in fact the more important part of public protection.
A second lesson just how politicians completely misunderstand the complexities of industry "self-regulation." If the PCC could fail so badly in the comparatively straightforward task of regulating its own industry, why on earth can politicians feel that they can speak so blithely and simplistically about private internet intermediaries "self-"regulating the key democratic fundamental rights of our society - privacy and freedom of communication?
Phone Hacking articles at The Guardian
News of the World phone hacking scandal investigations
The UK phone hacking scandal: there's worse to come - much worse
The Government still wants to hack your phone (14.07.2011)
(Contribution by Jim Killock - EDRi-member Open Rights Group - UK)