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Lord Mandelson has written to the Financial Times about the photos of Prince Harry's antics in a Las Vegas hotel room. His point is not however, about the ethics of playing strip-billiards. No, he was commenting on the effect of the Internet on privacy and freedom of expression, and on the profitability of news media. His comments apply equally to todays publication of photos of Kate Middleton.

It was Lord Mandelson, you will recall, who forced in the Digital Economy Act with technical measures to block access to copyright-infringing material. In Lord Mandelson's opinion, the Internet is unleashing a flood of 'uncorroborated, undigested and unmediated news'. If you ignore the tone of the letter, which is a bit like a rant by a no-longer-important ex-Minister, it does raise some questions for policy-makers concerning the Internet.

The issues highlighted in his FT letter are the fundamental rights to privacy and freedom of expression. In that context, the letter also issues of jurisdiction, media regulation and the profitability of news media.

Lord Mandelson writes: "how we come to grips with the fact that the internet is giving public access to a flood of uncorroborated, undigested and unmediated "news", all in the name of free speech, is becoming one of the defining issues of the 21st century."

Let's begin with privacy and freedom of expression. Did Prince Harry have any reasonable expectation of privacy, and is publication in the public interest?

Lord Mandelson is probably correct that The Sun published the Prince Harry pictures just to stick two fingers up at the British establishment. The Sun's formulation of the freedom of expression argument is arguably a spurious one.

However, In the UK, Prince Harry is third in line to the throne, he represents the Queen at official functions and from that viewpoint he is both a leader and an opinion-former. Therefore, there is arguably a public interest in the UK in knowing about his behviour.

It gets more interesting when we link it to juridiction. Lord Mandelson says: "when, a click away, there is access to information that respects no national boundaries and the laws of no single national parliament"

In the US, Prince Harry is no different from any other celebrity whose antics are of salacious interest to the public, but do not have any public interest in the legal sense. That would appear to be a different position from the UK.

The Internet crosses over jurisdictions and where content may be legal in one, it breaches the law in another. Hence, a right to privacy may be argued differently in different jurisdictions.

These jurisdictional differences have always been exploited to publish material that is banned in one country and legal in another. For example, the publication of a book by the former spy, Peter Wright, in Australia, because it was banned in the UK. That happened long before we had the Internet.

The issue with the Internet is that the people in the 'banned' country can defy the ban and l look at it online - unless of course, Lord Mandelson's infamous technical measures were to be applied for this purpose. That smacks of censorship. Or do we call it media regulation? It is a difficult conundrum.

Media regulation, is of course a very current topic here in the UK with the soon-to-publish Leveson inquiry. Lord Mandelson writes: "the bigger question is how the domestic media market can be made economic and subject to any form of regulation in an era".

There are many types of organisation purporting to offer news, who really only regurgitate press releases. I was looking at some yesterday, they were management consultancies for the telecoms industry who use news to up their SEO ratings, and to justify their high fees.

However, many Internet media businesses do make money out of advertising. The large advertising agencies are now saying publicly that Internet ads are taking a large share of their client's budgets.

So yes, Lord Mandelson is correct that we do have to look into how legitimate news organisations can make money in this very busy and confused online market.

Of course, today all of these issues have been reiterated with the publication of photos in the French Closer magazine, of Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge, minus her bikini top. You can bet they will be on the web, and everyone will see them, within 24 hours.

What we do not need is Lord Mandelson bleating about the problem, but a concentrated effort on finding a solution.

The article on which I am relying for this piece is: Financial Times, August 29, 2012 1:45 am From Lord Mandelson. Photos alert us to deeper media concerns

This is an original article from Iptegrity.com. You may re-publish it under a Creative Commons licence, but you should cite my name and provide a link back to iptegrity.com. Media and Academics - please cite as Monica Horten, Lord Mandelson, Prince Harry and closing the Internet floodgates, 14 September 2012 . Commercial users - please contact me.


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About Iptegrity

Iptegrity.com is the website of Dr Monica Horten. I am an  independent policy advisor: online safety, technology and human rights. In April 2024, I was appointed as an independent expert on the Council of Europe Committee of Experts on online safety and empowerment of content creators and users. I am a published author, and post-doctoral scholar. I hold a PhD from the University of Westminster, and a DipM from the Chartered Institute of Marketing. I cover the UK and EU. I'm a former tech journalist, and an experienced panelist and Chair. My media credits include the BBC, iNews, Times, Guardian and Politico.

Iptegrity.com is made available free of charge for non-commercial use. Please link back and attribute Dr Monica Horten.  Contact me to use any of my content for commercial purposes.