The internet is not out of reach of the law, but new laws are likely to be required to ‘civilise the internet’, the judge charged with investigating the press has suggested.
Speaking at the Communications Law Centre in Australia, Lord Justice Leveson said the internet posed similar tensions between privacy and freedom of expression as the introduction of the penny press, the telephone, wiretap technology and the Kodak snap camera.
He said that it is often perceived that there are no legal consequences to things posted on the internet.
‘Bloggers rejoice in placing their servers outside the jurisdiction where different laws apply. The writ of the law is said not to run. It is believed therefore that the shadow of the law is unable to play the same role it has played with the established media.’
But he said the law already deals with many issues that both the media and the internet throw up. ‘Individuals who tweet or use social media platforms are not beyond the reach of the criminal law,’ he said.
He cited the conviction of two men for inciting a riot via their Facebook page, and the defamation proceedings likely to follow tweeters who wrongly linked a politician to alleged child abuse.
‘In principle there is no reason why individuals who tweet in breach of court orders, including privacy injunctions, cannot be traced via their ISPs [internet service providers] and rendered subject to legal proceedings. The shadow of the law falls on the internet as it does all other aspects of society,’ he stressed.
Given that the internet is ‘not entirely out of the law’s reach’, Leveson argued, it is likely that, as with the media in the 19th century, ‘it will start to have an effect on individuals’ behaviour. It will start to modulate behaviour and curb its wilder excesses’.
‘Time and the proper application of the law will play the same role for the internet as it has done in all other areas of our lives; it will shape our behaviour and help to reinforce social norms,’ he said.
But, Leveson added: ‘Just as it took time for the wilder excesses of the penny press to be civilised, it will take time to civilise the internet.’ While established legal norms are in many respects capable of application to the internet, it is likely that new ones will need to be developed.
But he added that a balance had to be struck - balance between privacy and freedom of expression to ensure they are both safeguarded in an internet age.