By EDRi

This article is also available in:
Deutsch: [ENDitorial: Abhörskandale und Selbstregulierung | http://www.unwatched.org/EDRigram_9.15_ENDitorial_Abhoerskandale_und_Selbstregulierung?pk_campaign=edri&pk_kwd=20110801]

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
http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/phone-hacking

News of the World phone hacking scandal investigations
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/News_of_the_World_phone_hacking_scandal_investigations

The UK phone hacking scandal: there’s worse to come – much worse
(23.07.2011)
https://www.privacyinternational.org/blog/uk-phone-hacking-scandal-theres-worse-come-much-worse

The Government still wants to hack your phone (14.07.2011)
http://www.openrightsgroup.org/blog/2011/the-government-still-wants-to-hack-your-phone

(Contribution by Jim Killock – EDRi-member Open Rights Group – UK)