- Report blasts giant for refusing to filter information breaching court orders
- It follows case of Ryan Giggs, who was outed on Twitter despite an injunction
- MPs also call for crack down on sites like Facebook and Twitter if they break the law
By Leon Watson
PUBLISHED: 03:41 EST, 27 March 2012 | UPDATED: 08:00 EST, 27 March 2012
Google should be forced to stop people flouting privacy injunctions online by censoring its search results, an influential report said today.
So far the search engine has refused requests to filter out results that breach court orders like the one obtained by footballer Ryan Giggs.
But a cross-party committee of MPs and peers blasted the internet giant for its ‘totally unconvincing’ objection to weeding out illegal information.
It follows increasing concern about a series of high-profile cases last year where High Court privacy injunctions were repeatedly breached online.
In the Giggs case, the Manchester United and Wales star took out an injunction in April to prevent reporting of allegations that he had an extra-marital affair with model Imogen Thomas.
But details and speculation about that injunction were spread so widely on social networking site Twitter that eventually Lib Dem MP John Hemming ‘outed’ him in the House of Commons.
Mr Hemmings used parliamentary privilege to name the player, saying 75,000 people had already identified him on Twitter.
In December, the footballer settled his action against Ms Thomas, 28, when he admitted his allegations that the former Big Brother contestant blackmailed him were untrue.
In May last year, a committee was set up by Prime Minister David Cameron to examine privacy and free speech after the controversy.
In its report out today, the committee said sites like Google, Facebook and Twitter present numerous challenges to the rule of law in the UK.
It added: ‘Google and other search engines should take steps to ensure that their websites are not used as vehicles to breach the law and should actively develop and use such technology.
‘We recommend that if legislation is necessary to require them to do so it should be introduced.’
MPs and peers argued injunctions should routinely apply to websites such as Twitter and Facebook as well as newspapers.
Google had claimed that such a policy could threaten the unfettered flow of information online.
The company’s associate general counsel Daphne Keller said a mechanism that identified banned pictures or text would ‘not be a good idea’ because it could not assess the context.
But the committee concluded: ‘We find their objections in principle to developing such technology totally unconvincing.
‘Google and other search engines should take steps the ensure that their websites are not used as vehicles to breach the law and should actively develop and use such technology.
‘We recommend if legislation is necessary to require them to do so, it should be introduced.’
PROTECTING THE PRIVACY OF A MINSTER’S SON
Last month Cabinet minister won a gagging order to hush up ‘private information’ concerning her teenage son.
Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman was granted the High Court injunction banning publication of a story about 17-year-old Jonny, a promising rugby player.
The nature of the story cannot be disclosed, but Mr Justice Lindblom said it contained ‘sensitive personal information’ regarding which the boy was entitled to privacy.
However he refused the minister’s application for her family to remain anonymous in the proceedings, citing the principle of open justice.
It is thought to be the first time the courts have suppressed a story about the child of a cabinet minister since 1997, when then Home Secretary Jack Straw’s son Will bought drugs from an undercover reporter.
Mr Straw famously led his son to a police station to report his misdemeanour.
In this case, there is no suggestion that privately educated Jonny, who has represented England at under-16s rugby, has done anything illegal.
The committee heard evidence given by Max Mosley, the ex-Formula One boss who said he had spent at least £500,000 in 23 countries attempting to remove traces of a video filmed covertly by the News of the World video from the internet.
It also urged the Attorney General to be more willing to launch contempt of court claims against internet users if they are suspected of breaching privacy injunctions online.
The Joint Committee on Privacy and Injunctions said people who ‘actively seek publicity’ should accept there is ‘enhanced interest in their private lives by the media’.
However, the report stopped short of arguing for a new privacy law and instead set out recommendations for an ‘enhanced’ press regulator.
In a series of recommendations on the future of press regulation, the committee said a reformed Press Complaints Commission should have the power to fine newspapers and determine the prominence of printed apologies.
It urged advertisers to withdraw funding from newspapers and major blogs that opt out of the reconstituted regulator, and threatened ‘statutory oversight’ from a body such as Ofcom if the industry cannot agree a credible package of reforms.
John Whittingdale MP, chair of the committee, said: ‘The committee spent some time debating whether additional laws to clarify the right to privacy were necessary or desirable.
‘However, we concluded that the existing position, where each case is judged by the courts on an individual basis, is now working reasonably well.
‘We are concerned that individuals with grievances about invasion of privacy should have an alternative to costly legal action available to them.
‘It is clear that media self-regulation under the PCC did not work. We therefore wish to see a stronger self-regulatory system that is seen to be effective and commands the confidence of the public.’
A Google spokesman said: ‘Requiring search engines to screen the content of their web pages would be like asking phone companies to listen in on every call made across their networks for potentially suspicious activity.’