Free expression needs privacy!

The Nightjack saga – and particularly its most recent dramatic episode, Lord Leveson’s scorching interrogation of veteran Times legal manager Alastair Brett – has been compelling stuff. I am looking forward with great interest to the forthcoming article from David Allen Green (blogger Jack of Kent), due in the New Statesman on Monday, possibly including quotes from Nightjack himself.

I’m not going to rehash the saga – not least because David Allen Green will be producing something far, far better than anything I could. What I am interested in, however, is one of the underlying issues: the relationship between free expression and privacy. It is often thought that privacy is an enemy of free expression – blogger Guido Fawkes, for example, told the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Privacy and Injunctions that ‘privacy is a euphemism for censorship’. From his point of view it is easy to see that argument: celebrities (and in particular a number of Premier League footballers) have invoked privacy law to attempt to get injunctions to prevent publication of stories concerning their private lives. You don’t have to be a gossip columnist to consider that such actions might be seen as censorship.

That, however, is just part of the story. Privacy, like so many things, is a double-edged sword: the Nightjack saga shows that all too clearly. Nightjack was a blogger, a police ‘insider’ – and in order to get his stories out into the world, he needed to be able to protect his identity. He needed to be able to control who knew what about him – and that, ultimately, is what privacy is about. Having some control – albeit inherently limited – over what information about you is made public, and what remains private.

For Nightjack, losing that privacy meant losing his online identity: ‘Nightjack’ effectively ceased to exist. Anonymity (or perhaps more accurately pseudonymity) was crucial to his functioning as a blogger. For other bloggers, losing anonymity means losing much more – at least four Mexican bloggers have been brutally killed by the drug cartels about whom they have been writing.

In all kinds of situations this kind of privacy is crucial, from those combatting oppression to those threatened by abusive spouses, whistleblowers – and for others though the need isn’t so obviously crucial, anonymity or privacy allows them the freedom to talk about things that matter, not just to them but to us all. I’ve ‘met’ a number of people like this on Twitter, and have learned a huge amount from them both from their tweets and their blogs, things that they wouldn’t have felt so free to say if they had feared that they might be identified.

That’s the key. If we want to encourage people to speak freely, if we want to learn about what’s really happening in a whole range of situations, we need to give people not just the space and the opportunity to express themselves, but the protection that will give them the confidence to do so. We need to give them privacy… that way we’ll get more free expression.

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