Thursday, December 03, 2009

R v Internet - or was it journos v lawyers, and where is the horse?

I was at the R v Internet seminar today. It appears journalists and internet people were outnumbered by legal people and public servants.

It was an interesting forum, with everyone recognising that the Internet makes name suppression of celebrities redundant, and can threaten an accused's right to a fair trial. Some such as Victoria University Professor Tony Smith, considered that many problems were to do with the unregulated blogosphere. Steven Price, himself a blogger, as well as a university lecturer with legal and journalism credentials, was more realistic about what to do when suppression is breached. In short, the genie is out of the bottle, the horse has bolted, and there's nothing you can do. However, judges should direct juries to enable fair trials by advising that information "out there" may not be reliable.

Deputy Law Commissioner Warren Young, in talking about the recent Law Commission report, Suppressing Names and Evidence [PDF] explained how the Commission wants to tighten laws around suppression, particularly those of celebrities. Young did not consider the " horse had bolted", and made an analogy between suppression and shoplifting. Namely the fact that while lots of people know the name of a certain celebrity does not mean that suppression should be done away with just as many people who shoplift does not mean that shoplifting should be decriminalised. Yet there's a distinction: Many people consider that suppression - particularly of celebrities - should not be against the law, whereas most believe shoplifting should be illegal.

Judge David Harvey spoke in the afternoon and livened things up. He thinks the Internet can be regulated, and pointed to China as an example of regulation. But when asked about sites like Facebook and Twitter, he was out of his depth. He doesn't appear to have heard of platforms such as where you can simultaneously post an item to Facebook, Twitter, Friendfeed, blogs and other social networking sites. Rather than " the horse has bolted" he appears to think that the horse has briefly wandered out of the stable, and on a leash, but is unsure how long that leash is.

Canterbury University Associate Professor Ursula Cheer was very good on the legal side of suppression and contempt, but admittedly less clear on the tools of the Internet. She emphasised the truth that many legal people are not as clued up on social network programmes as they would like to or need to be, just as some bloggers and social networkers are ignorant of the law surrounding what they can and cannot publish. The former group don't think the horse has bolted - the latter think the horse bolted some time back. Bernard Hickey brought up what I thought was a good suggestion in that the two groups get together informally and discuss some of the issues raised, believing that the legal people and the technically savvy people, including online journalists, were "talking past each other". The question they should work towards agreement on is this: Where is the horse?

David Farrar also spoke. He was the only speaker who was not a journalist or a lawyer. He started off by discussing the prominent entertainer whose name was suppressed, and how he has seen the name on TradeMe, Yahoo Answers, and MSN NZ. I also found it on the front page of a certain Twitter search. As Farrar was talking about this suppression, and how angry he gets when people get away with breaching suppression on blogs, what did he do... he breached suppression to those with eagle eyes after telling everyone how he viewed the man's Facebook site. Oops. He also raised good points regarding what is actually a breach - a link to another site, a hint, a pointer to another site that the name is accessed. Many in the legal fraternity believed that nearly everyone under the age of 30 know who this person is, not so many over that age. I spoke to two law students during the lunch break, both were internet savvy, both were interested in Internet issues to do with suppression and contempt - both under 30 and both had no idea who this entertainer was.

The entire forum was videoed and will be available. You should be able to find it by googling it sometime.

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