When is a nation's border not a border? Should society accept our laws being broken in another country, if the product is consumed in our own?
These undeniably tricky questions have cropped up frequently over the past two decades, as the internet continues to change the way the world works. In the past year we have seen big debates over the legality and ethics of streaming football matches and movies from overseas sites and the viability of injunctions in the digital world. And the issue has risen again with the Mail Online's new campaign about overseas press regulation.
In summary, Mail Online is the world's most widely read, and potentially most influential, English language online news site, with 13.5 million daily visitors in 2015. This makes it highly desirable for advertisers, and a significant source of revenue for its owners.
Yet, according to FT.com statistics only 5.4 million of these readers are in the UK, with 3.7 million in the US and 4.4 million around the world. When you have more than half of your readers in different countries, and much of your content being created in either the US or Australia, what privacy publishing laws are you governed by?
It's a complex issue of globalisation, and it's no surprise that Mail Online has put its marker in the sand with its new campaign urging the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) to amend English press regulation, arguing that content generated overseas is not overseen by British rules.
IPSO was set up in 2012 after the Leveson Inquiry into British media standards, and recently upheld a complaint against Mail Online for a report about Tom Cruise that was read in the UK but was crucially written and edited by its US newsdesk. The report did not break US laws, but did contravene English guidelines, seemingly stimulating the publisher's new campaigning drive to legalise this kind of scenario.
If this campaign is successful then the notoriously unfettered freedom of speech enjoyed by US publishers, which allows in many cases for unsubstantiated gossip to irreparably damage the lives of people and organisations, could become the norm here, even though our own government is unlikely to sanction this for home-created content.
The publisher said: "Mail Online made it clear when it joined IPSO that it was agreeing to regulation of all Mail Online content relating to news events in the UK. Clearly that does not include content relating to news events in the USA. This has always been, and remains, Mail Online's position. In July IPSO announced a review of the way its regulations apply to global digital publications such as Mail Online. Mail Online is participating in that review."
The upscaling of pressure upon the regulatory body by highly influential publishers is troubling for anyone who believes that everyone in society deserves a reasonable degree of privacy and dignity.
In a global world, it can seem old fashioned to think local laws should apply if you are publishing something in different countries. But it's absolutely right that they do, as laws reflect different countries' cultures. Our laws of privacy are based on ideas of dignity and respect, whereas the US model of privacy is concerned with living life free from government interference. The different cultural underpinnings lead to very different laws.
Sometimes the familiar and non-tangible nature of the media we consume online makes it easy to forget that they are no different to any other businesses we consume goods and services from. Just like these other companies it is critical that we apply our cultural values upon them to ensure a just society.
For example, if a pharmaceutical company wanted to sell drugs in different counties online, it would have to abide by local laws before shipping them in. Why are laws about free speech and privacy different?
We should be proud about how our laws provide protection for both free speech and rights of reputation and privacy, and IPSO's review will be fundamentally important to the protection of these rights that every single person in England benefits from.
As such, if you care about your own privacy then keep a close eye on the IPSO review as it will change things, possibly forever, if we take a step backwards towards a world without privacy.
Jenny Afia is a Partner at the International Privacy and Reputation Consultancy, Schillings. www.schillingspartners.com
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