I notice that a UK MP has just “outed” soccer player Ryan Giggs as the prominent sportsman who had a well-publicised extra-marital affair. His identity was (and remains) the subject of a “super-injunction” issued by the UK High Court and based on rights to privacy in the Human Rights Act 1998.
This adds an interesting additional dimension to my recent post on privacy in a cyber-glasshouse world (which attracted almost no comment box debate for reasons I’m still at a loss to understand). My own view is that there is a distinct difference between the “public interest and stuff that is interesting to the public” (as Richard Ackland succinctly phrases it) from a privacy viewpoint, so that privacy should be protected by the law where the public’s interest in knowing stuff is overwhelmingly prurient. Where that is the case I don’t see that the public interest in freedom of speech has much force, irrespective of the degree of fame of the subject of salacious information. The fact that a person is famous does not mean they forfeit all moral claim to personal privacy in my view.
On the other hand, the “outing” of Ryan Giggs suggests that, whatever we might think as individuals about whether a right to privacy should exist, the borderless and almost universal nature of the Internet means that a court in any given country is unlikely to be able effectively or for very long to prevent disclosure of information about the identity of a person about whom salacious rumours are circulating. In one sense I suppose that’s not very different from the social situation in western societies before the urbanisation of the 18th and 19th centuries. Most people lived in villages and knew everyone else’s business anyway. Rights to privacy in that sense are just an artefact of a short period of history when the practical anonymity conferred by large urban agglomerations of people had not yet been rendered ineffective by Wikileaks, Twitter, blogs and Facebook and the underlying Internet architecture that makes it almost impossible for the courts of a single country to keep information confidential.
Nevertheless I can’t help thinking that this seemingly irreversible loss of privacy is not really a case for rejoicing, except perhaps for tabloid media proprietors like Rupert Murdoch.