Privacy in the networked universe

From a comment piece by me in today’s Observer.

Recent events in the high court suggest that we now have two parallel media universes.

In one – Universe A – we find tightly knit groups of newspaper editors and expensive lawyers trying to persuade a judge that details of the sexual relations between sundry celebrities and a cast of characters once memorably characterised by a Glasgow lawyer as “hoors, pimps and comic singers” should (or should not) be published in the public prints.

If the judge sides with the celebs, then he or she can grant an injunction forbidding publication. But because news of an injunction invariably piques public interest (no smoke without fire and all that), an extra legal facility has become popular — the super-injunction, which prevents publication of news that an injunction has been granted, thereby ensuring not only that Joe Public knows nothing of the aforementioned cavortings, but also that he doesn’t know that he doesn’t know.

In the old days, this system worked a treat for the simple reason that Universe A was hermetically sealed. If a judge granted the requisite injunctions, then nobody outside the magic circle knew anything.

But those days are gone. Universe A is no longer hermetically sealed.

It now leaks into Universe B, which is the networked ecosystem powered by the internet. And once news of an injunction gets on to the net, then effectively the whole expensive charade of Universe A counts for nought. A few minutes’ googling or twittering is usually enough to find out what’s going on.

This raises interesting moral dilemmas for Joe Public…