ARE YOU BEING WATCHED? FREE SPEECH ECLIPSED
An appreciation by Phillip Taylor MBE and Elizabeth Taylor of Richmond Green Chambers
Raymond Wacks has created an in-depth exploration in only 150 pages, of the increasingly complex and controversial subject of privacy with this new addition to the OUP’s ‘Very Short Introduction’ series of pocket-sized books on academic subjects; short enough that is, for beleaguered commuters to read on the train, or, say, harassed lawyers to read in the courtroom corridor.
This book is one of over 200 small-format books in this admirable series which covers everything from African history to Wittgenstein and world trade. Written by experts, they are intended as a stimulating and accessible way into a new subject – and very accessible they are, Professor Wacks’s ‘Privacy’ being a prime example.
As he states in the Preface, Wax’s association with privacy and data protection has been from a legal perspective; the law, in his words, being ‘an indispensable instrument in the protection of privacy.’
The subject however encompasses other dimensions -- social, cultural political and psychological. Wacks’s stated aim is ‘to consider these—and several others -- forces that shape our understanding of this challenging concept.’
Speaking of law and lawyers, there is, to our knowledge, no more erudite and persuasive an advocate for protecting privacy than Wacks. If you ever find yourself in a debate on privacy versus free speech, this is the succinct yet thoroughly researched source of some very effective arguments in favour of privacy.
These arguments are all the more convincing in the light of recent technological developments, which worryingly, can be misused, including electronic surveillance, biometrics, CCTV, ID cards, (ID cards? Hate ‘em!) ubiquitous RFID codes on various plastic-y cards, increasingly sophisticated developments in DNA -- and the entire Internet -- and so on – and this list is by no means exhaustive.
Against all this, the tension between privacy and free speech escalates. The danger with any surfeit of privacy legislation is that, like any new development, it can get out of hand. What Dr Johnson might have termed ‘yelps for privacy’ often come from individuals, or institutions ranting about ‘transparency’ then ranting in favour of privacy to cover up things they’d rather you didn’t know about.
We all should have the right to privacy within reason, but when privacy triumphs over freedom of speech, miscreants everywhere get the freedom to do what they want without fear of the pesky press snooping around and finding out. Those with dictatorial tendencies – Stalin, Mao, and Richard Nixon – loved their privacy with a passion. But then again, we ordinary folk treasure privacy too, although not necessarily at the expense of other freedoms.
So what to do? ‘The ideal answer,’ suggests Wacks, ‘is explicit, carefully drafted legislation that creates civil and criminal sanctions for seriously offensive, intentional and reckless intrusion into an individual’s solitude or seclusion and the unauthorized publication of personal information.’
This sounds sensible, even though you might timidly ask, ‘unauthorized by whom?’ In all, however, Raymond Wacks has made a valuable, reasoned and authoritative contribution to the ongoing debate that continues to rage around this thorny subject.