Max Mosley vs. the Internet

Posted on: 29 November 2011 by Alexander Hay

The ex-Formula One boss is justified in calling for reform of the UK's media, but are his calls to regulate the Internet as justified, or a threat to real free speech?

More than just words - the future of journalism in this country is at a crossroadsMax Mosley may well be remembered as the man who got caught in an S&M expose and still walked out with his head held high. In part, the reason why was on display at the Leveson Inquiry last week.

The former Formula 1 boss handled himself with a calm dignity and a 'my private life is none of your business' confidence, while what got him in the papers was neither here nor there precisely because it was irrelevant. As in, Mosley's sex life had been roundly demonstrated as having no bearing on his public life.

His other strength has been his reasonableness. He has not called for across-the-board press censorship, but for the sort of controls only the most sociopathic of tabloid editors and paparazzi would object to:

It's early days at the Leveson inquiry, but some pointers have already emerged. First, the conduct of a section of the British press would be unacceptable in any civilised society. Second, the Press Complaints Commission has been largely ineffective. Third, all the witnesses who have so far appeared have made it clear they greatly value a free press...

So how would Mosley enforce the Press Complaints Comission's much-ignored code of conduct? By making its authority legally enforceable of course, but not in a way that would threaten 'proper' journalism:

...An enforcement body should be able to initiate proceedings without waiting for a complaint. It should also be able to compel mediation. Only if mediation fails should enforcement be considered. It would need the power to fine, also to order an immediate correction (specifying position, prominence and wording). In appropriate circumstances it should be able to require newspapers to leave an individual or family alone as well as ban material from a picture agency that ignored such an order. Deciding whether a breach of privacy should be published at all would be a vital part of its function...

Again, all perfectly reasonable. The problem is that Mosley then takes these calls to regulate the press as a springboard to calling for regulation of the Internet:

...The final difficulty for the Leveson inquiry may be the internet. Clearly, a newspaper that puts unlawful images on the internet should be responsible for removing them. It should not be left to the victim. At the moment, some enthusiasts want the internet to remain a sort of wild west. But it is absurd to suggest that a huge and growing area of commerce and human interaction can exist outside the law. The search engines and service providers are subject to the same laws as the rest of us. Just as a shopkeeper is responsible for what he sells, they are responsible for what they deliver. It is irrational (and ultimately futile) to try to exclude the internet from the rule of law.

There are many problems with this. Firstly, Mosley is conflating two seperate issues here. Issues of regulating the press are, by their very nature, different from those regulating the world wide web because they operate so differently. This has not, of course, stopped him from suing Google in France and Germany for search results that link to the original News of the World story.

Assuming that a PCC with added legal authority could expand its remit to the web, how would its powers translate and would this be desirable for free speech? Also, Mosley's reminding us of how a shopkeeper is responsible for what he sells is also problematic. How traditional media is regulated depends very much on regulating the producers rather than the consumers. In other words, if a newspaper publishes a falsehood or breaches someone's privacy, it and not its readers, nor the newsagents they buy their newspapers from should be held responsible. Likewise, if a shopkeeper sells chocolate contaminated with poison, he is not accountable for that if he did so in good faith.

Online service providers and search engines are in a similar position. They provide the means for information to be found and disseminated, but forcing them to become moral guardians would interfere with their primary goal and also force them into being censors despite not being directly responsible. Apart from being impractical - imagine all the resources needed to keep track of what is being put up online - it is also unjust, and intrusive, very much like what happened to Max Mosley himself, and which lead to him paradoxically becoming a defender of a free press and an enemy of its excesses.

[SOURCE: The Guardian]

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Alexander Hay

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