Regulating the Raunchy? A look at free speech and obscenity under Miller v. California

Regulating the Raunchy? A look at free speech and obscenity under Miller v. California

One of the most interesting aspects of being a technology lawyer is that it necessarily requires a strong understanding of Internet regulation and digital rights, including the right to express yourself online.  As such, free speech is one of my favourite areas of legal history and theory.  Coincidentally, two major US Supreme Court cases regarding free speech were decided on this day —  21 June!

This post takes a look at one of them: Miller v. California [1973].  In a later post, I’ll explore a second landmark free speech case decided on 21 June: Texas v. Johnson [1989].

The Constitution in Court.  

Most people know that the First Amendment of the US Constitution protects freedom of speech. However, it’s actually a bit more complicated than many would guess. In its entirety, the First Amendment says:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Putting the aspects regarding religion, assembly, and petitions to one side, what this Amendment essentially does is prohibit the government from prohibiting freedom of speech. But what does that look like in practice?

Of course, we cannot travel back in time to 1789 to ask James Madison what he meant when he drafted the Bill of Rights. Instead, American Courts have over time developed various methodologies to apply modern facts to something written 230 years ago.

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Miller v. California – to what extent can the government regulate porn, and why should we care?

The case of Miller v. California, 413 U.S. 15 (1973) concerns pornography and whether or not the government is allowed to regulate obscene material. Marvin Miller was the owner/operator of a California mail-order business specializing in pornographic films and books. When his company’s brochures were sent to and opened by a restaurant owner in Newport Beach, California, the restaurant owner called the police. Miller was subsequently arrested and charged with violating California Penal Code § 311.2, which is paraphrased below:

Every person who knowingly sends into California for sale or distribution, or in this state possesses, prepares, publishes, with intent to distribute or to exhibit to others, any obscene matter is guilty of a misdemeanor.

The jury at Miller’s trial in State court had been instructed to consider the pornographic materials in question, and determine if they were “obscene.” The jury decided that they were, and Miller was found guilty. Because he objected with the way in which the jury had arrived at this conclusion, he appealed the decision to the Supreme Court.

Although the Supreme Court ultimately vacated the earlier jury verdict and remanded the case back to the California Superior Court, the matter became a landmark decision and the basis for what is now known as the Miller Test.

Writing the majority opinion, Chief Justice Burger reaffirmed in Miller that obscenity can be regulated by the government, because it is “unprotected speech.” Referring to Roth v United States (1957) and other similar cases, Justice Burger explained that obscenity was not within the area of constitutionally protected freedom of speech either under the First Amendment, or the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. “In the light of history,” Justice Brennan had said in Roth, “it is apparent that the unconditional phrasing of the First Amendment was not intended to protect every utterance.”

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Legal Fun Fact:  The first conviction for obscenity in Great Britain occurred in 1727. Edmund Curll was convicted for publishing erotic fiction titled “Venus in the Cloister or The Nun in her Smock” under the common law offence of disturbing the King’s peace. 

Now that we are clear that the First Amendment does not protect obscenity, the next question is obviously therefore: what is obscenity?  

In Miller, Justice Burger acknowledged the inherent dangers of regulating any form of expression, and said that “State statutes designed to regulate obscene materials must be carefully limited.” As a result, the Supreme Court was tasked with confining “the permissible scope of such regulation to works which depict or describe sexual conduct.”

This brings us to Burger’s three-part test for juries in obscenity cases. Obscenity is now defined as something: (1) the average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find appeals to a prurient interest; (2) which depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct; and (3) whether the work lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific (or “SLAPS”) value. In short, obscenity must satisfy as the prurient interest, patently offensive, and SLAPS prongs.

The Miller test changed the way courts define obscenity, and accordingly, what does – or does not – deserve protection as “free speech.”  

This Miller obscenity test overturned the Court’s earlier definition of obscenity established in Memoirs v Massachusetts (1966). In Memoirs, the Court had decided that obscenity was material which was “patently offensive and utterly without redeeming social value.” Furthermore, the Memoirs decision made clear that “all ideas having even the slightest redeeming social importance have the full protection of the guaranties [of the First Amendment]”.

By adopting the Miller decision, the Supreme Court departed from Memoirs in favour of a more conservative and narrow interpretation of the types of speech which qualify for First Amendment protection. Rather than considering obscenity as simply that which is “utterly without redeeming social value” of any kind, obscenity is now a subjective standard. This offers wider discretion to State legislatures and police agencies, as well as prosecutors and jurors, to decide whether material is “obscene” under local community standards.

Not everyone agrees!  Unsurprisingly, the Miller decision was a narrow one, and split the Court 5-4.

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Chief Justice Burger wrote the majority opinion, with Justice Douglas penning the dissent.

Justice William O. Douglas wrote the dissent and, at the risk of sounding like a total legal geek, I highly suggest taking a quick read of it! One of my favourite excerpts is as follows:

The idea that the First Amendment permits government to ban publications that are “offensive” to some people puts an ominous gloss on freedom […] The First Amendment was designed “to invite dispute,” to induce “a condition of unrest,” to “create dissatisfaction with conditions as they are,” and even to stir “people to anger.” The idea that the First Amendment permits punishment for ideas that are “offensive” to the particular judge or jury sitting in judgment is astounding. 

Nevertheless, despite the dissent and criticism, the Miller test remains the federal and state standard for deciding what obscene. However, the rise of the Internet has complicated matters, not least because the concept of “community standards” is difficult to define given how interconnected we are today.

What do you think? After nearly 50 years, should the Supreme Court reconsider what “obscenity” means? Is the Miller Test due for an update?

Noteworthy interview on new social media advertising regulations

Noteworthy interview on new social media advertising regulations

Earlier this autumn, several celebrities were investigated by UK regulators for not labelling social media posts as “advertisements”. Given that so-called influencers can potentially sway the shopping habits of millions, the Advertising Standards Association published An Influencer’s Guide to making clear that ads are ads, to help celebs and bloggers avoid misleading consumers. But what does this guide really mean in practical terms? To better understand the world of influencers and online advertising, I’ve interviewed Nicole Ocran-Hegarty: journalist, style blogger, and Influencer Strategy Manager at Disney.

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Kelsey:  Nicole, you and I first met online about 15 years ago on the blogging platform Livejournal. Since then, we both – coincidentally – moved from the United States to London, where we finally met in real life!

Can you tell me a bit about your professional background in journalism, and what inspired you to begin your personal fashion blog, The Noteworthy?

Nicole:  I honestly cannot get over how the Internet brings people together. I remember typing away and commenting on your LiveJournal and messaging you from my childhood bedroom in Annandale, Virginia. You were constantly here there and everywhere and I was so jealous of that. Anyway, I’m already off topic!

My career in journalism started when I was 19 or 20 and a student at George Mason University. I had just started editing the Style pages of my university’s student newspaper, the Fourth Estate. It was there that I really honed my craft, my love of writing, editing of interviewing. In my junior year I became editor-in-chief of the paper: I lived and breathed the paper, and didn’t want to do anything else but be in the Student Media office. I also was interning at the The Washington Post’s free daily paper, Express.

By the time I graduated from George Mason, I started another internship at the non-profit Student Press Law Center, fighting for First Amendment rights for students across America. At the same time I applied to City University in London, and went with their journalism masters programme! It was the best decision I ever made.

In London, I got my first job in entertainment journalism at Entertainment News, and I’ve since written for the Metro, The Sun and Refinery29 UK! I decided to start The Noteworthy while I working in a job where I wasn’t really able to express myself through personal writing. When I got made redundant, The Noteworthy became a real outlet for me, as I was able to showcase my love of fashion, where I hadn’t been able to before.

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In addition to writing about style, fashion and beauty, Nicole routinely explores topics about feminism, politics, Black women, and pop and celebrity culture. Recently, she explained why she won’t shop at Topshop anymore in light of the Philip Green sexual harassment scandal.

Under the new Influencer’s Guide, bloggers only need to disclose something as an advert if: (1) they’ve been “paid” in some way, which could include receiving a freebie, AND (2) they are under some form of editorial “control” by the brand. What are your thoughts on this? Do you think most people are aware of the “control” aspect? Do you think it matters?

I have so many thoughts on this! Firstly, I think disclosure is incredibly important. We’re in an age now where not only are audiences incredibly savvy but they’re also somewhat skeptical. It’s so important to be completely honest about their gifted items, paid campaigns, free trips and so on. Especially in an age where we are just feeling terrible and comparing ourselves to everything we see online.

I’m not sure how much the general public knows how much control a brand has over content. Often it can be very clear and sometimes it doesn’t look authentic to that influencer, so it can be a bit obvious. Other times, the brand might gift the influencer a product without any expectation for them to post, so it ends up just fitting in naturally.

The control aspect is key. If a brand gifts you an item, but then expects you to post on a certain day or see content before it goes live – then this is sponsored content. Even if you haven’t been paid for it, and that must be made clear to your audience. The guidelines are in place to protect consumers, which I appreciate.

You mention “gifting” by brands. Is the distinction between “paying” and “gifting” a product an important one to make? If so, why?

To me, yes. The two mean completely different things in my mind – when something is paid, I think of brand control, I think of money exchanging hands, and contracts signed. Gifted items and freebies although have monetary value, should be made clear in a different way. I do prefer to know that an influencer hasn’t purchased that product with their own money, for example, or didn’t pay for that holiday.

Something I hear often from colleagues and friends is that advertising on social media is “obvious enough,” and that consumers don’t need the #ad hashtag or similar disclaimers. As a general rule, do you think bloggers and influencers are actually clear and transparent enough? Is there sufficient self-regulation? Or were the regulators right to step in with new rules?

There are definitely #ads and #sponcon that are extremely obvious with their advertising messaging and aren’t being declared as such – but I don’t think that should matter. The regulators are absolutely right to step in with new rules and best practice. I also think there’s been a real effort from bloggers and influencers to declare ads, but there are still a select few (including celebrities and reality stars) getting away with not doing it.

What do you think some of the biggest concerns influencers and bloggers have with making it clear that adverts are indeed adverts? Aesthetics? Independence? Credibility?

I think fatigue? I think there are a lot of consumers who feel like they are constantly being advertised to, but we spend so much time on our phones, our laptops and social media now that advertising is just becoming more obvious. It’s always been there in TV, radio and print!

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But at least for me, a lot of the bloggers that I followed before they were known as influencers, I followed them because I liked them as people (or their online personas), so I understand it can be jarring to see an ad thrown in with their regular content. But I enjoy supporting them still because I feel like I’ve been on that journey with them.

If you could speak to the advertising regulators directly and tell them one key thing about this issue, what would it be?

I do think a lot of the declaration can feel excessive, which does cause people to have to say “This isn’t an ad, I just love X”. My main issue has been the distinction between a gifted item as payment, especially as there can be a lot of influencers who receive gifted product and declaring it as an ‘ad’ or as ‘sponsored’ to me as a consumer, means something else entirely.

Finally, what have been the most challenging and rewarding things about running your own fashion and lifestyle blog thus far? What is something you hope to accomplish or participate in over the next few months?

The most challenging thing is time! I still work full-time in talent/influencer strategy, so that is my 9-5 job. Having to run my blog during evenings and weekends can be pretty tiring but also I just wish I could do more!

The most rewarding by miles and miles are the friendships I’ve made through blogging, that is what I cherish the most and is what keeps me coming back to create more content! Being able to speak to people all over the world is just a joy.

I hope to be able to get my life in order and continue to post consistently! Anything I can do to write more would be ideal, so hopefully some more freelance opportunities, or even speaking opportunities as well!

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Many thanks to Nicole for sharing her time, expertise and insight with me for this interview! You can follow her at The-Noteworthy.com, on Instagram at @NicoleOcran, and on Twitter @NicoleOcran

NDAs and the Sound of Silence

NDAs and the Sound of Silence

“When truth is replaced by silence, the silence is a lie.” 
Yevgeny Yevtushenko

The #MeToo movement has brought Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) as a way to silence allegations of sexual harassment into the public debate.  In light of controversies surrounding Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein and now – Sir Philip Green, the billionaire retailer whose brands include Topshop – much has been discussed about the legality and morality of using NDAs to prevent publicity or otherwise cover up  bad behaviour.

But like any legal document, NDAs are not inherently “good” or “bad”. They are simply a tool, regularly used by lawyers in many contexts. To understand why they have become controversial, and to contribute to the debate concerning their use and abuse, we must first consider their structure and purpose.

NDAs, which are also called Confidentiality Agreements, are simply a type of contract used to prevent someone from sharing confidential information in ways which are unacceptable or damaging to another person. What information is considered “confidential” depends very much on the situation, as well as the relationship between the person providing the information (“discloser“) and the person receiving it (“recipient“).

Use of the word “confidential” to mean “intended to be treated as private” dates from the 1770s, and has its roots in the Latin word confidentia. This means “firmly trusting,” and is itself derived from confidere, which means “to have full trust or reliance.” 

Confidential information is often shared for a business purpose or in corporate negotiations, especially when mergers or collaborations occur. For example, a restaurant chain looking for a deal with a food manufacturer may want to share recipes, or a fashion designer may seek a partnership with a well-known athlete who has sketches and drawings of a sports-inspired clothing range. Likewise, when a company hires a new employee, they may be given access to company client lists, manufacturing processes or other valuable data.

The basic anatomy of the NDA is relatively straight forward, and should always contain the following elements:

  • A clear definition of the confidential information.
    These are often heavily negotiated clauses, and it is usual to have very wordy and detailed definitions which set out explicitly what is and is not captured by the agreement. Sometimes, even the NDA itself is considered “confidential information,” which means that its terms or existence must be kept secret.The discloser will often want a broad definition of confidential information which covers not only the documents or products in question, but perhaps any derivative ideas, feedback, analysis or concepts created or inspired by the confidential information. On the other hand, the receiving party will want to keep this definition as narrow as possible.

 

  • The key obligation to keep the information secret.
    Standard wording will typically begin as follows: “In return for the discloser making confidential information available to the recipient, the recipient promises to the discloser that it shall keep the confidential information secret and confidential.”However, the obligation clause almost always contains many more rules and responsibilities. For example, the recipient may be prohibited from even indirectly sharing or hinting at the confidential information. They may also be prohibited from making copies, removing the information from a particular location, or storing it on their personal smartphone.

 

  • The ways in which the information can be used.
    The recipient will be prohibited from using or exploiting the confidential information except for the “purpose.” The purpose is the defined reason the information will be shared in the first place, for example, “to establish a collaboration in respect of the Tommy Hilfiger x Lewis Hamilton fashion line.”Disclosures of the information by the recipient to their employees and professional advisers (including lawyers and accountants) are usually permitted. In such cases, the discloser may ask that all individuals who receive the confidential information from the recipient sign a separate confidentiality agreement. While some may consider this a bit over the top, it makes sense from the discloser’s perspective that the receiver should take responsibility if its employees or advisers breach confidentiality.

 

  • What happens if the project or deal does not go ahead, and the duration of the secrecy.
    The discloser will often ask that the receiver returns or destroys the confidential information if the project or transaction fails to materialise. The parties should also establish a realistic time period for the duration of the secrecy, as it may be unreasonable to expect that the information has to remain confidential for eternity.
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Lilly Panholzer for City finds it is easy to silence women with NDAs

Seems simple enough, so what’s all the fuss about?

As mentioned above, NDAs are incredibly common and used in a wide variety of situations, ranging from complex corporate takeovers to short-term collaborations. But despite their ubiquitous nature and seemingly straightforward terms, it would be a mistake to assume that these are simple contracts. 

It is rare for the parties entering the agreement to have perfectly equal bargaining power. Due to an imbalance of money, expertise, resources or even reputation, one of the parties involved will almost always be able to exert more influence over the other. This inherent imbalance can lead to the creation of NDAs which grant – or limit – rights in an unfair or improper way.

Entrepreneurs may think that an NDA adequately protects their valuable information when it is divulged to a potential investor. But unless the definitions and obligations are sufficiently locked down, little may prevent the investor from stealing the entrepreneur’s ideas.

Similarly, some unscrupulous companies may attempt to force their employees to enter into NDAs in an attempt to prevent whistleblowing or discrimination lawsuits. Matters can become very complex when an individual who has a grievance against a powerful boss is threatened with dismissal or further harassment, unless they sign an NDA. Moreover, a new common extension of NDAs is the inclusion of a “non-disparagement” clause. This goes beyond the protection of confidential information, and requires employees to never speak negatively about their employer or former employer.

In both the United States and the United Kingdom, lawmakers and courts have begun to establish clearer boundaries about the enforceable scope of NDAs. In the court of public opinion, powerful individuals who weaponise NDAs in an attempt to stifle access to justice, impair free speech and limit creativity are already losing. Regardless of the reason for entering a NDA, you owe it to yourself to ensure the document is checked first by a lawyer, and that your rights – and remedies – are adequately protected. 

 

UK regulator to investigate social media influencers

UK regulator to investigate social media influencers

A number of celebrities and social media stars are being investigated by the Competition and Markets Authority, which says it has concerns that some influencers are failing to disclose that they are being paid for their endorsements.

In the early days of social media, Instagram and Facebook were seen as ways to connect with those closest to us, and to provide an insight into our private lives. Today however, models and celebrities can make thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of dollars with every photo they post, simply by featuring a product in their image. This nuanced form of targeted marketing deliberately blurs the line between “advertising” and “personal” sharing, and it’s big business. According to the Financial Times, Instagram influencers earned more than $1bn (£770m) in 2017.

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Pictured here is Chiara Ferragni, Italian fashion writer, influencer, businesswoman; and the first-ever blogger to be the focus of a Harvard Business School case study. Is this post of hers an advertisement, or is she just sharing the love?

Under American law, companies who work with influencers (defined as “key individuals with significant social media followings”) to promote products, services, or brands must follow certain rules, many of which are set out in Title XVI (Commercial Practices) of the Code of Federal Regulations. In particular, when there exists a connection between the endorser and the seller of the advertised product that might materially affect the weight or credibility of the endorsement, such connection must be fully disclosed. (16 C.F.R. §§ 255.0-255.5).

In practice, this means that when a company pays an individual – either in cash, or through discounts, free travel, or products – the company and influencer should enter a written contract. The contract should oblige the influencer to both “disclose its material connection to the advertiser clearly and conspicuously,” as well as “refrain from making any false or misleading statements about the products and services.”

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nearly identical post to Chiara’s above, but Victoria at inthefrow here has included #ad. Is that clear and conspicuous enough?

Here in the United Kingdom, where influencers are paid to promote, review or talk about a product on social media, the law requires that this must be made clear. The use of editorial content that promotes a product –also known as “advertorials” or “native advertising”– must clearly identify that the company has paid for the promotion.

Earlier this month, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) launched an investigation into whether consumers are being misled by celebrities who do not make clear that they have been paid, or otherwise rewarded, to endorse products online. In its press release, the CMA announced that it has already written to a range of celebrities and social media influencers to request information about their posts and the nature of the agreements they have in place with brands. This comes just weeks after Made in Chelsea star Louise Thompson was slapped on the wrist for failing to disclose an Instagram post as a paid-for advertisement for watchmaker Daniel Wellington.

The regulator is also asking consumers to share their experiences, and says it would “particularly benefit from hearing from people who have bought products which were endorsed on social media.”

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Notice that this post says at the top, “paid partnership with.” Is that better than #ad?

The investigation is being carried out under Part 8 of the Enterprise Act 2002 in respect of potential breaches of the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008. If an influencer ignores the CMA’s requests to comply with the law, an enforcement order in court. As for next steps, breaching such an order can lead to an unlimited fine or a jail term of up to two years. However, examples of meaningful penalties are still almost non-existent.

What do you think? Are influencer adverts easy enough to spot, without the hashtags and caveats? Interestingly, a study by Bazaarvoice and Morar Research found that nearly half of the 4,000 UK consumers polled are “fatigued” by repetitive influencer content. The majority also said they felt influencers were publishing content that was “too materialistic” and “misrepresented real life.” Notwithstanding this, the World Federation of Advertisers reported that 65% of multinational brands plan to increase their influencer investment. Perhaps there’s truth in what Chiara herself once quipped: “some loved me, some hated me—but they all followed me.”

 

Interested in this topic? Be sure to check out The Fashion Law’s Annual Brand and Influencer Report: The Good, Bad, and Highly Problematic. Featured photo above is Lena Perminova at Paris Fashion Week Autumn/Winter 2018 | Source: Getty Images

Sir Cliff Richards v BBC: is publicity the soul of justice?

Sir Cliff Richards v BBC: is publicity the soul of justice?

You don’t have to be a privacy or media lawyer to have heard of the sex abuse allegations levied against celebrities in the entertainment industry over the last few years. The investigations concerning Sir Cliff Richard, a famous British musician, included a widely-televised raid on his estate in Berkshire by South Yorkshire Police. Nearly four years after the BBC first named and shamed Sir Cliff in what is now considered to have been “sensationalist” journalism, the High Court has determined that his rights of privacy were infringed.

What makes this case so interesting is that it does not focus on defamation —that is, the publication (or voicing) of a statement which adversely affects another person’s reputation. Instead, Sir Cliff won his case on the basis that the BBC’s wrongful disclosure of his private information was an invasion of his privacy. 

In Sir Cliff Richard v BBC and South Yorkshire Policethe Court considered if suspects who have not been formally charged by police have a reasonable expectation of privacy in respect of the criminal investigation. How are an individual’s rights to privacy balanced against the freedom of expression enjoyed by media organisations? That the suspect in this case is a celebrity only complicates matters, as it calls into question the importance publishing private details in the name of public interest.

Prosecutors said in 2016 that there was not enough evidence to justify criminal charges against Mr. Richard, one of Britain’s best-known entertainers, with a career spanning some 60 years. However, the BBC stands by their reportage of the allegations, and I suspect the BBC will indeed appeal this decision.

As if written for the stage, the Justice Mann’s 120-page judgement begins with a summary of key characters and the plot as it unfolded…

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Daniel Johnson, in front of Sir Cliff’s Berkshire estate

Daniel Johnson, an investigative journalist for the BBC, received a tip-off from a police insider in June 2014 that Sir Cliff was under investigation for historic sex offences against a child. In a manner some would consider blackmail, Johnson “exploited the opportunity to get confirmation of his story about Sir Cliff, and more details if possible” from the South Yorkshire Police (SYP). In exchange for Johnson not publishing the story immediately, the SYP promised that he would be given advance notice of the search of Sir Cliff’s estate. The raid was eventually conducted in August 2014, with BBC crew waiting at the gates and helicopters hovering overhead to capture the whole ordeal.

In case you’re wondering where the Beeb’s lawyers were, the BBC held a meeting to discuss whether to name Sir Cliff and when to broadcast. In her testimony, Senior Editor Fran Unsworth explained that “the legal risk was diminishing because they had got a lot of confirmation of the facts of the story”. The principal legal concern seems to have been in respect of factual accuracy and defamation, and not privacy – as “the lawyers had not flagged that up to her as a specific risk” (para 111).

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the (not very exciting) footage shows plain-clothes police entering Sir Cliff’s estate.
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Three gloved individuals appear to be looking through what is likely Sir Cliff’s office

The legal framework of Sir Cliff’s privacy claim is enshrined in European Convention on Human Rights, brought into force in the UK by the Human Rights Act 1998.

Article 8 sets out the right to privacy: “Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence. There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as is in accordance with the law […] or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”

Article 10 upholds the BBC’s competing rights of expression: “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society [including those] for the protection of the reputation or rights of others.”

In instances where which both Article 8 and Article 10 are engaged, the Court has to perform a balancing and weighing act to ascertain which predominates. Neither article has prima facie precedence over the other.

Article 8 privacy protections arise only where an individual has a reasonable expectation of privacy. For example, if I have a conversation with my friend in a crowded coffee shop in central London, I cannot reasonably expect our discussion to be protected as truly private.

The 77 year-old singer told the Court that he suffered an “unbelievable amount of hurt and pain” after the BBC broadcast the allegations that he had sexually assaulted a boy in 1985. “It felt like torture, sustained over almost two years. It felt as though everything I had done, everything I had built and worked to achieve, was being torn down, like life itself was coming to an end.”

But one might wonder if, as a celebrity, Sir Cliff cannot claim to have an expectation of privacy. A certain amount of emphasis was given by the BBC to the fact that Sir Cliff was a public figure, and one who had promoted his Christian beliefs. Because Sir Cliff had been so vocal (ie public) about Christian morality, the BBC considered that his alleged sexual crimes against a child qualified as a matter of public interest. To that point, the Court acknowledged that in certain special circumstances, the public’s right to be informed can extend into private aspects of public figures (para 276).

However,  Rocknroll v News Group Newspapers [2013] EWHC 24 (Ch) upheld that a public figure is not, by virtue of their fame, necessarily deprived of his or her legitimate expectations of privacy. Axel Springer v Germany 39954/08 [2012] ECHR 227 also makes clear that the safeguard afforded by Article 10 to journalists is subject to the proviso that they are acting in good faith and on an accurate factual basis, and that they provide “reliable and precise” information in accordance with the ethics of journalism.

In considering the BBC’s argument that the stories about Sir Cliff had been published in the public interest, the Court disagreed, saying that reporters at the BBC “were far more impressed by the size of the story and that they had the opportunity to scoop their rivals.” (para 280) This echoes the findings in Axel Springer, in that photographs and commentary which expose a person’s private life cannot be considered to have been published in the name of public interest, if they were in fact made public only to “satisfy the curiosity of a particular readership” (Axel Springer, para 48). It is unsurprising in my view that Justice Mann “came to the clear conclusion that Sir Cliff’s privacy rights were not outweighed by the BBC’s rights to freedom of expression” (para 315).

Publicity is the very soul of justice. In the darkness of secrecy, sinister interest and evil in every shape, have full swing. Only in proportion as publicity has place can any of the checks, applicable to judicial injustice, operate. Where there is no publicity there is no justice.

Jeremy Bentham. legal and social reformer (1748 – 1832)

Will this case have a chilling effect on media freedoms? Writing for The Guardian, Professor of Financial Journalism Jane Martinson argues that “as long as the media reports accurately – making it clear when a suspect is under investigation for a serious crime, rather than arrested or charged – there should be no bar to the public knowing what is going on.” However, in my view this fails to take into consideration the complexity of public perception. In his concluding remarks, Justice Mann cited “the failure of the public to keep the presumption of innocence in mind at all times” as an aggravating factor against the BBC.

Other criticisms focus on the point that this case provides an undeserved blanket of anonymity to criminals, providing a way to keep allegations against possible abusers secret. Whether or not there is a reasonable expectation of privacy in a police investigation is in actuality fact-sensitive question, and is not capable of a universal answer (para. 237). According to Police Guidance on Relationships with the Media, the names or identifying details of suspects of crime should not be released by police to the press or public, unless special circumstances apply — such as threat to life, the prevention or detection of crime, or a matter of public interest.

The inevitable stigma attached to the extremely serious allegations against Sir Cliff made the invasion of privacy even worse. When an individual’s good reputation is tarnished, even wrongfully, it may never be recoverable. This is especially harmful to celebrities, who rely so heavily on public favour. In my view, Sir Cliff Richards v BBC is not a sweeping new precedent that stifles freedom of the press: it simply restates the statutory protections afforded by the Human Rights Act within the context of already-established European and English case law.

France vs Russia in media regulator showdown

France vs Russia in media regulator showdown

France’s broadcasting regulator recently issued a warning to the French division of Russian television channel RT for falsifying facts in a programme about the use of chemical weapons in Syria. The following day, the Russian state media regulator accused French television channel France 24 of violating Russian media laws. As relations between western countries and Moscow deteriorate, France nears passing “Fake News” regulation to hit back at RT, while France 24 risks having its operating licenses revoked in Russia.

RT France’s broadcast on Syria

At least 40 people died earlier this year from exposure to chlorine and sarin gas in the Syrian town of Douma. The attack provoked global outrage and Western governments blamed the attack on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a Russian ally. Within days, the United States, Britain, and France led retaliatory missile strikes against Assad’s suspected chemical weapons sites.

Several days later, RT France aired a segment entitled “Simulated Attacks” during its evening news programme, which dismissed the chemical weapons attacks as staged. Furthermore, RT France dubbed over the voices of Syrian civilians with words they had not said. The portrayal of the Syrian attack in such a manner may be a violation of its contractual, and regulatory obligations under French law.

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Xenia Federova, President of RT France, reportedly has a direct line to President Putin

A Muscovite in Paris

Bolstered by the popularity of its French language website and YouTube channel, RT took the decision to open a Paris bureau after the Élysée Palace refused to provide RT reporters with press credentials to cover presidential news conferences. Previously, the state-backed broadcaster had been criticized by French President Emmanuel Macron as “behaving like deceitful propaganda” which “produced infamous counter-truths about him.” As a presidential candidate, Macron was targeted by a campaign of fake news and hacking attempts from Russia, and he is reported to have taken the affront personally.

I have decided that we are going to evolve our legal system to protect our democracy from fake news. The freedom of the press is not a special freedom, it is the highest expression of freedom. If we want to protect liberal democracies, we have to be strong and have clear rules.

Emmanuel Macron

Nevertheless, when speaking about the channel prior to its launch, RT France’s president Xenia Fedorova commented: “France is a country with a storied legacy of respect for the freedom of expression and embrace of new ideas. RT France will enable the audiences to explore this diversity and hear the voices rarely found in the mainstream media.”

Conseil supérieur de l’audiovisuel (Audiovisual Council, or CSA) has authority under the French Freedom of Communication Act or “Léotard Act” (loi n° 86-1067) to regulate television programming in France. RT only recently entered the French market in January 2018, and like all broadcasters in the country, operates under a contract with the CSA. In its official notice, CSA stated that the Russian outlet violated its obligations under the contract, namely:

  • article 2-3-1 —journalists, presenters, hosts or programme directors will ensure that they observe an honest presentation of questions relating to controversies and disputed issues
  • article 2-3-6 —The publisher will demonstrate precision in the presentation and treatment of news. It will ensure the balance between the context in which images were taken and the subject that they show [and] cannot distort the initial meaning of the images or words collected, nor mislead the viewer.

CSA went on to claim RT France displayed “failures of honesty, rigor of information, and diversity of points of view.” Furthermore, “there was a marked imbalance in the analysis, which, on a topic as sensitive as this, did not lay out the different points of view.”

Although RT France acknowledged a mistake had been made in the French translation of comments from a Syrian witness, it claimed that this was a “purely technical error” which had been corrected. Rebutting CSA’s complaint, Xenia Fedorova stated, “RT France covers all subjects, including the Syrian conflict, in a totally balanced manner, by giving all sides a chance to comment.”

 

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Not amused: standing alongside Putin, Macron stated at this 2017 conference that “Russia Today did not behave as media organisations and journalists, but as agencies of influence and propaganda, lying propaganda – no more, no less.”

 

A Parisien in Moscow

France 24 broadcasts in English on Russian satellite packages, and has about 1,348,000 weekly viewers. In a statement, Russia’s Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media —commonly known as Roskomnadzor identified a violation of media law by France 24 in Russia.

A Russian media source reports that “during an analysis of the licensing agreements in watchdog Roskomnadzor’s possession, it has been established that the editorial activity of France 24 is under the control of a foreign legal entity.”

This would violate Article 19.1 of the Russian Mass Media Law, which was amended in 2016 to restrict foreign ownership of media companies. The law bans foreigners from holding more than a 20 per cent stake in Russian media outlets, effectively forcing them to be controlled by Russian legal entities.

RT’s chief editor Margarita Simonyan said the Roszkomnadzor move was a retaliatory action for CSA’s warning. Speaking to state news agency RIA Novosti, Simonyan explained, “Russia is a big country. Unlike many, we can afford ourselves the luxury of tit-for-tat measures.”

RT is widely acknowledged as the Russian government’s main weapon in an intensifying information war with the West. In respect of media ownership, it is no secret that the Kremlin uses direct ownership to influence publications and the airwaves. Each Russian TV channel is fully or partially owned by the state except for one, NTV. Even so, NTV is owned by Gazprom, the natural gas giant in which the government has a controlling stake.

Because of the constrained political environment, Russian media are unable to resist the pressure from the state and succumbed to the well-known propaganda and conformism pattern according to which they’ve been operating in the Soviet times. The period of the relative freedom of press ended with Vladimir Putin ascension to power, which was too short for the Russian media to become a strong democratic institution.

Index on Censorship

In the wake of alleged Russian interference with American elections and the Brexit referendum, lawmakers now face the challenge of regulating a defiant type of expression. Is this propaganda masquerading as journalism, which should be curtailed or even censored ? Or is RT simply a voice from a different perspective? Should viewers be trusted to make the best decision as the information wars carry on?

In France at least, the road to regulation seems to be preferred. After fierce debate, the French Parliament approved draft legislation to allow courts to determine whether articles published within three months of elections are credible, or should be taken down.

Social network, media company, host provider, neutral intermediary… what’s in a name for YouTube?

Social network, media company, host provider, neutral intermediary… what’s in a name for YouTube?

Media companies who call themselves social networks will have to recognize that they, too, have to take on responsibility for the content with which they earn their millions.

-— Markus Breitenecker, CEO of Puls4

Who is to blame, if someone records TV programmes and illegally uploads them to YouTube: YouTube, or the individual? According to the Commercial Court of Vienna, YouTube is jointly responsible for copyright breaches from user-uploaded content. Is this einer Entscheidung, die das Internet revolutionieren könnte – a decision that could revolutionize the Internet?

To date, the unanimous opinion of European case law supports the position that YouTube is only a platform, an intermediary, a service provider, a neutral host, and so on – and therefore could not bear the responsibility for stolen content. That’s no longer true, says the Handelsgericht Wien (Vienna’s Commercial Court).

In its judgement of 6 June, the Court handed Austrian TV broadcaster Puls4 a key victory in its four-year legal battle with Google-owned YouTube. In 2014, Puls4 had sued YouTube for allowing Puls4’s stolen content to appear on the YouTube platform. YouTube responded by asserting the Host Provider Privilege set out in Article 14 of the E-Commerce Directive 2000/31/EC, which in certain situations shields host providers from being held responsible for the actions of its users.

The Americans have a similar provision in the Online Copyright Infringement Liability Limitation Act (OCILLA), which forms part of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The OCILLA creates a conditional “safe harbor” for online service providers by shielding them for their own acts of direct copyright infringement, as well as from potential secondary liability for the infringing acts of others. In exempting internet actors from copyright infringement liability in certain scenarios,  both Article 14 and the Safe Harbor rule aim to balance the competing interests of the copyright holders, and those who use the content online.

Where YouTube is simply a host provider, it is the individual who uploaded the video in the first instance who is to blame for the theft of copyrighted material. This time, the Court disagreed with YouTube’s argument, and has found finding the media giant to be jointly responsible for the copyright infringement.

So, why should we care about the Puls4 case? Although Austrian case law is not binding for other European Union member states, the Commercial Court’s judgment sets a precedent for denying Host Provider Privilege to YouTube. This may encourage similar decisions in the future which are based on the same line of argument.

Speaking to German newspaper Der Standard, Puls4’s CEO Markus Breitenecker explained that YouTube had effectively abandoned its neutral intermediary position and assumed an active role, which provided it with a knowledge of or control over certain data. In European legislative parlance, this is known as being a false hosting provider or false intermediary.

For years, many of us have assumed that YouTube is just a inanimate platform to which users upload videos. This case underscores that YouTube can no longer “play the role of a neutral intermediary” because of its “links, mechanisms for sorting and filtering, in particular the generation of lists of particular categories, its analysis of users’ browsing habits and its tailor-made suggestions of content.”

Puls4 and YouTube have until early July to petition the court, before it issues its binding ruling. In a statement to The Local Austria, YouTube said it was studying the ruling and “holding all our options open, including appealing” the decision.  In the meanwhile however, YouTube noted that it takes protecting copyrighted work very seriously.

If the preliminary decision is upheld, YouTube must perform a content check upon upload, instead of simply removing copyright infringing content upon notification. In respect of this, the Viennese court stated that “YouTube must in future — through advance controls — ensure that no content that infringes copyright is uploaded.” It is therefore rather timely that YouTube began beta testing a feature called Copyright Match last month, a tool which allows users to scan the platform to locate full re-uploads of their original videos on other users’ YouTube channels.

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some Puls4 content is still available on YouTube (at least, here in the UK).

The European Parliament seems to think the arguments about false hosting providers is best left to the courts to decide. Despite the E-Commerce Directive being more than 15 years old, there is no pressing need for a reform. In a recent report on the matter,  the European Parliament’s Committee on the Internal Market and Consumer Protection stated that while false hosting providers may not have been envisaged at the time of the adoption of the E-Commerce Directive in 2000, “the delineation between passive service providers caught by Article 14 and active role providers remains an issue for the court.”