Bloggers shouldn’t panic about the proposed Royal Charter, unless they’re already panicking about the current law.
Imagine that a local citizen blogger – let’s call her Mrs B, who is a member of a local church group – decides to let others know, by way of a website, some news and information about the group. She includes information for those about to be confirmed into the church as well as extraneous, light-hearted stuff about her fellow parishioners, including the fact that one of them has a broken leg. Now imagine that a complaint by one of the fellow parishioners that this website is intrusive is upheld and Mrs B is found to have breached domestic law.
The coercive power of the state being brought against a mere blogger would be, you might imagine, unacceptable. You might imagine that any such domestic law, in a country which is a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights, would be held to be in breach of the free-expression rights under Article 10 of the same.
This sort of outcome, you might say, would surely be unimaginable even under the proposed regulatory scheme by Royal Charter agreed in principle by the main party leaders on 18 March.
But, as anyone who knows about data protection law will tell you, exactly this happened in 2003 in Sweden, when poor Mrs Bodil Lindqvist was prosecuted and convicted under national Swedish legislation on data protection and privacy. On appeal to the European Court of Justice her actions were held to have been the “processing” of “personal data” (and, in the case of the person with the injured leg, of the higher-category “sensitive personal data”) and thus those actions engaged Article 3(1) of Directive 95/46/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 24 October 1995 on the protection of individuals with regard to the processing of personal data and on the free movement of such data which is given domestic effect in Sweden by the law under which she was convicted. The same Directive is, of course, given domestic effect in the UK by the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA).
The response to the proposed Royal Charter was heated, and many people noticed that the interpretative provisions in Schedule 4 implied the regulation of web content in general (if said content was “news-related material”), thus potentially bringing the “blogosphere” and various social media activities into jurisdiction. This has caused much protest. For instance Cory Doctorow wrote
In a nutshell, then: if you press a button labelled “publish” or “submit” or “tweet” while in the UK, these rules as written will treat you as a newspaper proprietor, and make you vulnerable to an arbitration procedure where the complainer pays nothing, but you have to pay to defend yourself, and that will potentially have the power to fine you, force you to censor your posts, and force you to print “corrections” and “apologies” in a manner that the regulator will get to specify.
But the irony is, that is effectively exactly the position as it currently stands under data protection law. If you publish or submit or tweet in the UK information which relates to an identifiable individual you are “processing” “personal data”. The “data subject” can object if they feel the processing is in breach of the very broad obligations under the DPA. This right of objection is free (by means of a complaint to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO)). The ICO can impose a monetary penalty notice (a “fine”) up to £500,000 for serious breaches of the DPA, and can issue enforcement notices requiring certain actions (such as removal of data, corrections, apologies etc) and a breach of an enforcement notice is potentially a criminal offence.
As it is, the ICO is highly unlikely even to accept jurisdiction over a complaint like this. He will say it is covered by the exemption for processing if it is “only for the purposes of that individual’s personal, family or household affairs (including recreational purposes)”. He will say this despite the fact that this position is legally and logically unsound, and was heavily criticised in the High Court, where, in response to a statement from the ICO that
The situation would clearly be impossible were the Information Commissioner to be expected to rule on what it is acceptable for one individual to say about…another individual. This is not what my office is established to do. This is particularly the case where other legal remedies are available – for example, the law of libel or incitement.
Mr Justice Tugendhat said
I do not find it possible to reconcile the views on the law expressed in the Commissioner’s letter with authoritative statements of the law. The DPA does envisage that the Information Commissioner should consider what it is acceptable for one individual to say about another, because the First Data Protection Principle requires that data should be processed lawfully. The authoritative statements of the law are to be found not only in the cases cited in this judgment (including para 16 above), but also by the Court of Appeal in Campbell v MGN Ltd  EWCA Civ 1373  QB 633 paras  to , and in other cases. As Patten J made clear in Murray, where the DPA applies, if processing is unlawful by reason of it breaching the general law of confidentiality (and thus any other general law) there will be a contravention of the First Data Protection Principle within the meaning of s.40(1), and a breach of s.4(4) of the DPA…The fact that a claimant may have claims under common law torts, or under HRA s.6, does not preclude there being a claim under, or other means of enforcement of, the DPA.
The ICO will decline jurisdiction because, in reality, he does not have the resources to regulate the internet in its broadest sense, and nor does he have the inclination to do so. And I strongly suspect that this would also be the position of any regulator established under the Royal Charter.
I’m not normally one for complacency, and I actually think that the fact that the coercive power of the state potentially applies in this manner to activities such as blogging and tweeting is problematic (not wrong per se, note, but problematic). But the fact is that, firstly, the same coercive power already applies, to the extent that such activities engage, for instance, defamation law, or contempt of court, or incitement laws, and secondly – and despite the High Court criticism – no one seems to be particularly exercised by the fact that the current DPA regulator is able to ignore the activities of the blogosphere, so I doubt that the social and legal will exists to regulate these activities. I hope I’m not wrong.