Addressing the Westminster Media Forum on the regulation of privacy and online media earlier today Baroness Buscombe, Chairman of the PCC, referred to the PCC’s decision in Baskerville (see a report of that decision here). Faced with some criticism of the decision, described by one commentator at the event as “illiberal”, Baroness Buscombe explained that in this decision the PCC had sought to “put a marker down” that “Twitter is very public”.
She explained that the PCC’s decision was not simply the position adopted by one individual but the result of a detailed consideration of the particular facts of the case by no fewer than 17 people. Baroness Buscombe continued to note that Twitter, in its current iteration, is a public medium and that users must appreciate that when they “tweet” material they are making public statements. As such “it is hard to regard tweets as private”. Baroness Buscombe explained that that position may change as the technology evolves or the dissemination controls on Twitter change but it is a notable feature of Twitter today that material can be retweeted without consent and the potential audience of any one tweet is great: as she pointed out, a tweet can “be global in minutes”.
Baroness Buscombe did not go so far as to say that tweets are always fair game for the media. She stressed to the audience that each case involving Twitter will be considered by the PCC on its individual merits and that the quality of the information contained within a tweet will be relevant – “the PCC would view lifting health information very unfavourably” for example. She was satisfied that the PCC had reached the correct conclusion in the Baskerville case and that the articles that were the subject of complaint were the subject of public interest.
Running through Baroness Buscombe’s explanation of the PCC’s approach to the issue of Twitter, and social media, was the need for users to be aware of the potential audience and to make careful decisions about the “data” they elect to share online – and where, how and when they share it. Beyond highlighting the PCC’s “good engagement” with Facebook (incidentally on how it deals with the Facebook pages of the deceased, about which a press release is imminent) she did not elaborate on how she or the PCC proposes educating the masses on the management and protection of their own data. What seems to be implicit in her approach however, and consistent with that of the PCC more broadly and the reasoning in Baskerville, is that the extent to which a contributor to Twitter or other social media can be considered to have accepted and understood the risks of sharing data is a factor to be considered before a paper decides to republish that material. Where is it clear that data was posted without consent or by a child, then there will have to be very strong public interest justifications for its republication. What is not clear however is where that leaves data shared by an adult who is ignorant of the risks, the potential consequences of his actions or his ability to restrict publication (where the tools exist)? If Twitter is public then it would seem that ignorance really is no defence. One for the PCC’s Online Working Group perhaps.