Any new British privacy law will have to protect citizens' privacy from the government as much as from the media.
That's according to UK Justice Minister Tom McNally, who was speaking on Data Protection Day at an event organised by the Information Commissioner's Office. McNally discussed the new defamation and privacy legislation that the ministry is mulling over in light of the Leveson Inquiry into the ethics and practices of the British press.
New technology has raised the stakes, McNally said:
[I]n a free society there should be a limit to what the government knows about its people. And now, the capacity of the state to do that is almost limitless.
The Register asked him afterwards how law-makers will attempt to regulate fast flowing conversations on social media sites such as Twitter. Several high-profile Twitter-related defamation cases have hit courts recently.
McNally said he wanted the new law to reflect the benefits of the internet as well as the risks it poses, and said the new legislation should not affect the "quality" of conversations on social media sites:
We have to be able to use these tools in a way that makes for regular conversation, and it has to take account of the speed that people communicate at.
McNally said that when the government decided that the internet was a valuable asset to society and "chose not to impose restrictions" on it in the 2003 Communications Act, it made the right decision. Current legislation under the Act gives the government the power to suspend communications networks and can be used to lock up abusive Facebook posters, and was used to convict Paul Chambers, the man who tweeted a joke about blowing up Doncaster airport, though the conviction was later overturned.
Asked whether defamation as a legal concept would be defined differently online, McNally reiterated the comments of the attorney general who stated in in November that defamation on the internet is still defamation. But the Minister's mention of "real harm" opens up the possibility that could be different ways of assessing what counts as real harm on the internet compared to in traditional media.
When it comes to defamation there should be that same pressure that there is on the press, but we should focus on "real harm".
But there is no quick fix in law-making for the internet, said the minister:
I always say to my colleagues - if you know the piece of legislation that can correctly govern the internet, let me know about it.