Thursday, 16 July 2015

Revenge Porn

Can you hear it? The faint murmur somewhere in the distance of big government's war drums signalling the start of an offensive to create a new law, ending a system that works fairly well to replace it with one which I can only assume will work considerably better for someone.

I'm talking about revenge porn. The rather nasty act of posting up intimate pictures of your ex on the internet to humiliate them. An epidemic which has reached such epic proportions that according to the Guardian in the 6 months to April this year the 14 police forces who even bother to record the numbers received a total of 139 complaints. For comparison, there were 33,000 burglaries in England and Wales in the month of April alone. Yet a quick search of the term 'burglary' in the British section of Google news shows just a handful of examples from local papers. I don't see any Guardian editorials calling for changes to the law or celebrity cases where a former X Factor winner takes to Twitter to demand we put burglars in prison. You don't see airbrushed celebrities claiming burglary is a form of abuse, or any of the other features that you will see on a similar search for 'revenge porn' on Google news.

So what's the story? Applying the usual 'follow the money'  maxim leads me to the idea that there will be changes to the copyright laws. As things currently stand, pretty well anything that is visible in public can be photographed, and the photographer then owns the copyright. Being photographed does not give me any claim on that photograph, rights as to how it is used or claim on revenue derived from it. This is based on the sound principle that you don't own the light that bounces off you which creates the image recorded. There are certain exceptions where injunctions can be obtained to protect privacy, and certain situations where repeatedly photographing someone who does not wish to be photographed is a form of harassment, but the general rule is that if it can be seen in public it can be photographed in public.

The laws appear to work fairly well for most people, most of the time and embarrassing as it may be to have a photo posted up on some obscure website and viewed by strangers for a few weeks, it will soon be pushed down more salacious trivia and forgotten. Sorry 22-year old who wishes to remain anonymous, you're not really that interesting. It's hard to see the justification for major changes to copyright laws to protect the few dozen people who are victims of this.

However, certain celebrities and politicians do have a problem with this and their war against press freedom has been gathering pace for a few years. Their privacy was one area of focus the far-reaching Leveson enquiry investigated, and the super-injunctions sought by various people in the public eye are another example. The next logical step is to do what many other European countries already do and alter the law essentially giving the person photographed a claim to the photograph. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge won such a case in France in 2012.

It's understandable why people would want that. No-one would like to have their every move photographed, their every unflattering picture spread across the tabloids and their every folly in the public domain. However, the reality is that many of these celebrities have a symbiotic relationship with the press. They need the press to publish their private lives and report their every movement in order to maintain their celebrity. The question is not whether they will have more privacy but whether they will have more control over their public image, and perhaps a claim on the revenue generated. For those with something more serious to hide than middle-aged spread or a drunken indiscretion then the incentive for such a change is even greater.

The principle behind this though it quite dangerous for the governed and attractive to those with power. As mentioned above, a photograph is reflected light. It is simply what is visible at a certain point in time in a public place. If the subject of a photograph can own the photograph then why can't the subject of any other story? Or an audio recording? Supposing I see one of these silly celebrities cavorting around and I can't take a picture, can I report it at all? Suppose it's something less trivial than Cheryl Coles new love interest. Can I report the energy minister using the oil company's Lear jet? Or the MP putting a meal with his friends on expenses?

Can I report anything without the permission of the subject?

It's hard to really speculate what the upshot of this law will be more generally, or even what form it will eventually take. But it seems worth noting that the relatively small number of people who are victims of revenge porn are little more than a sympathetic battering ram to drive through laws for the benefit of a different group of people altogether, and laws that will do much to undermine transparency in public life.