On journalism as a defender of privacy

I wrote a book chapter which was published last year in the collection Australian Journalism Today that talked about journalism, digital media, and privacy. I quote from the draft here; this concluding section on “Journalism as a defender of privacy” seems relevant in the light of The Guardian’s outstanding work on the NSA scandal:

Prominent examples of journalists abusing individual privacy should not be allowed to obscure the many cases where digital technologies have been used to allow important and justifiable revelations. Aspects of the contemporary digital communications environment threatens privacy, but specific tools can facilitate the research and publication of legitimate stories that work to hold public figures and institutions to account. As detailed elsewhere in this collection, independent whistleblower site WikiLeaks has used digitisation, the availability of global networks, the connectivity of mobile devices and encryption to publish revelations about powerful individuals, organisations and governments in accordance with a doctrine of “radical transparency”. (Flew and Wilson, forthcoming) Major media organisations partnered with them in order to bring these to a wider audience. But WikiLeaks built in protections for the privacy and safety of the whistleblowers who leaked materials to the site.

The most serious violations of privacy by technology firms have been brought to public attention by journalists. An example is the story about Facebook’s “Beacon” online advertising system, which used browser cookies to send Facebook information about the sites users visited when they were not on Facebook. The privacy concerns raised were that Facebook was able by these means to develop a complete picture of users’ Internet browing. This story was originally broken in the specialist technology press in 2007, and then pursued by the New York Times’s technology bloggers, Brad Stone and Louise Story. The stories led to advertisers withdrawing their support for the service, and an eventual class action against Facebook.

WikiLeaks and the watchdog reporting seen in the Beacon case offer examples of a different orientation from journalists towards the affordances of new technologies and privacy. If they are used primarily to hold the powerful to account, then we will not only be assured of acting in the public interest, but of helping to positively adapt the profession to the the technological changes that are too often seen as threatening it. If technologically-savvy investigative reporters can practice a “journalism of outrage” which focuses attention on the violations of individuals’ privacy by Internet giants, and which assists in building a new kind of moral conversation around these practices, they will position themselves as defenders, rather than enemies of information privacy.

But his kind of reporting depends on journalists being able to operate independently of any entanglements with media conglomerates. Reporters may find it difficult to report on violations of privacy from organisations which are branches of the same conglomerates they work for, or which have significant shared interests with them. Media organisations themselves are now entering into significant partnerships with enterprises which have questions to answer about their attitudes to privacy, and which stand to gain the most from monetising private information (an example is the Guardian’s decision in 2011 to offer a version of its website which was readable within Facebook). A maintenance of the commitment to journalistic independence and perhaps, more importantly, meaningfully independent media outlets, will be necessary of journalists are to emerge as friends of privacy.

Journalists should also explicitly rethink the ethical codes which now govern their use of private information. Professional bodies need to start conversations about approaches to privacy that understand that, post-Web 2.0, privacy is no longer an on-off switch, but something which is more fuzzy and context-dependent. They may also consider making an explicit commitment to defending the privacy of ordinary people at a time when large corporations, governments and a new breed of moguls are amassing money or power by eroding it.