The Wild Web: Leveson warns against online ‘mob rule’
Lord Justice Leveson has spoken out against the "mob rule" which dominates the internet on Twitter and other social networking sites.
Speaking at a symposium on privacy in Sydney, the high court judge drew a distinction between the established media, which "broadly conforms to the law", and those online who believe that "actions do not have legal consequences".
"There is not only danger of trial by Twitter, but also of an unending punishment, and no prospect of rehabilitation, via Google," he said.
"To name and shame people by broadcasting their behaviour (online), there is a danger of real harm being done, and in some cases harm which is both permanent and disproportionate."
Leveson's report on the culture, ethics and practice of the press published eight days ago has triggered a political row in Westminster, as David Cameron's Conservatives line up against their Lib Dem colleagues and the Labour party over the question of self-regulation underpinned by statute.
While Leveson himself has refused to comment on the debate, insisting his report must speak for itself, he remains outspoken about the perils of privacy posed by the online world.
"Children and the young do not appreciate that uploading a compromising photograph for a laugh can have consequences for the long-term future," he added.
"Because once the photograph is in the public domain, it can be found, copied and reproduced, all, again, at the click of the mouse."
"Just as it took time for the wilder excesses of the early penny press to be civilised, it will take time to civilise the internet," he said.
"[The internet] does not trade in gossip. It simply publishes it online, conveys it on Facebook, uploads it onto Youtube, tweets and re-tweets it."
New laws will have to be developed over time to regulate the internet, he suggested.
Leveson's report said very little about the internet, although he warned that organic change online could leave the national newspapers dominating online news as they switch from print.
There are already calls in Westminster for regulation of the internet to be extended, however.
Conservative backbencher Conor Burns, a staunch defender of free speech for the printed press, told politics.co.uk he had been defamed online and had struggled to get redress.
He criticised "the small number of people who post these malign, vicious hurtful and untrue posts on people" and called for a system where it is "much easier to have redress and find out who these people are".
"It hasn't got the same degree of restraint that an editor has, because he or she knows they will be held to account for what they publish," he said in an interview for politics.co.uk's podcast on Leveson and the internet.
"It's about having a whole look at the regulatory framework that evens up the playing field between online and the print."
Professor Steven Barnett of the University of Westminster told politics.co.uk it would be a bad idea to regulate the internet.
"From the bedroom blogger to the kind of average-sized internet journalism site, with the best will in the world, there is not a single one of them who has anything like a fraction of the power of the Daily Mail or the Sun in full flight," he said.
"Guido Fawkes might claim to have a couple of political scalps under his belt. He wouldn't have got anywhere had they not been taken up by the newspapers once he got on the trial. It's the press that still form the backbone of real political power and movement in this country".
Barnett said online sites acted as an "intelligent buffer against some of the nonsense you see in the press" and said they should have "absolutely nothing to fear".