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August 30, 2006

The globalisation of media law?

At present I think I probably know naff all about media law. That’s supposed to change over the next year as I enjoy myself (ha ha ha) studying it. But something that looks set to be an interesting new topic is whether media law can possibly respect national boundaries given the internet.

This story’s come about because of an investigative piece in the New York Times yesterday which revealed far more about the current British terror inquiry than U.K. newspapers would be allowed to print, for fear of prejudicing the suspects’ trial.

The New York Times took the unusual step of putting an IP address filter on users trying to access the story, but of course it doesn’t take a genius to find a way around it. The story Details Emerge in British Terror Case will lead many British users to a page explaining the legal reasons for blocking the page. But… some British users will find their internet is routed from abroad and will be able to see the page with no problems. And other, more inquisitive souls (Would I?!) can just go and use a proxy server to get around the block.

Even better, other newspapers have actually reprinted the article in full on their website, but without even attempting to block the content from British eyes.

So surely the answer is to create an agreement between countries that journalism which could prejudice a trial abroad would be prevented from going online.


It wouldn’t work. Can you honestly see the American First Amendment lobby really getting bothered about whether their newspapers might say something that inadvertantly makes a foreign juror better informed about the case they might have to deliberate on? Not a chance. And even then, if the prosecution do their job properly then they should inform the jury far better than a foreign newspaper could ever manage.

So while the global harmonisation of media laws might seem a good idea on the surface (and I’m sure the EU will catch on to it if they haven’t already), in reality they’re a waste of time. Juries will simply have to be selected more carefully if the legal system is worried about jurors having seen or heard too much about the case in advance, as attempting to fence in internet content on a territorial basis is doomed to fail. It simply wasn’t built with territorial laws in mind, and can’t be bent to fit a flawed system.

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