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Monday, April 11, 2011

Reining in the "privacy is dead" crowd

Further proof, if any was needed, that the perception in some quarters is anything now goes with what used to be called the right to privacy, were revelations about goings on at the Australian Defence Force Academy that have Defence Minister Stephen Smith hopping mad. 

Travis Isaacs WikiMedia Commons
Perhaps part of starting to rein this in might be be a firm statement from the government that the law of the land not only says government agencies and big business organisations should respect (information) privacy, which it already does, although substantial improvements are needed. But that the law also will soon establish potential consequences for those who flagrantly commit serious breaches of reasonable community standards and expectations regarding privacy generally. 

That's what the Australian Law Reform Commission had in mind in recommending three years ago legislation to establish a statutory cause of action. I’m not suggesting suing an 18 year old ADFA cadet or cadets would necessarily get ‘Kate” anywhere. But something on the statute book about the consequences of an unwarranted serious breach of privacy instead of silence might help start to shape thinking about the importance of respect for privacy.

Up to now the government's attitude has been it will have a look at this issue maybe sometime in 2012 after we get other privacy issues arising from the ALRC report settled. In the meantime, apart from a rocket for those in charge at ADFA, and an inquiry into prevailing attitudes to women, the government remains knee deep in the detail of information privacy principles, suggesting a leisurely approach to reform and with no voice to inform and lead public debate to balance those who argue privacy is dead or not worth worrying about. 

Apart from the ALRC, and the NSW  and Victorian law reform commissions who have recommended legislative action, the Senate Environment and Communications Reference Committee in a report last week on the adequacy of protections for the privacy of Australians online expressed unanimous support [3.122] for such action.

Of course confirming a right to legal action by removing the current uncertainty here won't mean intrusions won't occur. As we see In the UK where the courts acknowledge an actionable right to privacy, with Rupert Murdoch now admitting and apologising on behalf of News of the World for hacking the phones of the royal family, politicians, celebrities and sports stars, and offering to settle the claims of eight prominent individuals while two and maybe more of his journalists face criminal charges.

Opposition in Australia to a statutory cause of action for a serious breach of privacy has been led by News Ltd's The Australian, which consistently refuses to acknowledge that broader issues than privacy and the media are involved, and that the ALRC recommendation has regard to important and sometimes competing rights such as freedom of expression and the press.

It's time for moving on. 

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