Lord Neuberger gives Conference5RB speech

Format: Event
Date: 30 Sep 2014

The President of the Supreme Court makes a speech on privacy and anonymous speech online at the event

Lord Neuberger PSC was the Keynote speaker at 2014’s Conference5RB at King’s Place on Tuesday 30 September. He gave a speech entitled ““What’s in a name?” – Privacy and anonymous speech on the Internet”. The full text is available to download on the Supreme Court’s website.

Taking its title from the question famously asked by Lord Rodger in In re Guardian News and Media Ltd [2010] UKSC 1; [2010] 2 AC 697, “What’s in a name? ‘A lot’, the press would answer”,  the speech considered the interrelationship between privacy and freedom of expression, particularly in light of developments in IT and the internet.

Lord Neuberger began by describing the mystery which surrounded the identity of 18th century satirical letter writer “Junius”, whose criticisms of the government were published in the Public Advertiser. Junius’s contemporaries, he said, recognised the strength he drew from his anonymity.

Lord Neuberger made a comparison between today’s bloggers and the anonymous satirist. He noted the wide interest in learning the identities of those who publish anonymously online and considered the case of Author of a Blog v Times Newspapers Limited [2009] EWHC 1358 (QB), where a blogger applied unsuccessfully to restrain publication of his identity by a newspaper. He also referred to SRJ v Person(s) Unknown being the author and commenters of Internet blogs [2014] EWHC 2293 (QB), where the court refused to make an order requiring a firm of solicitors to disclose the identity of one of its former clients, who was accused by a corporate entity of publishing confidential information on internet blogs.

Lord Neuberger went on to outline the scale of contemporary internet use and the extent to which, in the context of anonymous speech, an author’s Article 8 rights have been held to reinforce his or her Article 10 rights. He considered the robust protection afforded to anonymous speech in US law, and the fact that, whereas the First Amendment explicitly refers to the Press, it is not mentioned in Article 10 of the Convention. He said that Strasbourg has made up this deficit, and explored ways in which the Convention might protect anonymous speech online through a legal focus on the duties and responsibilities of anonymous speech. Following the Supreme Court’s decision in Kennedy v The Charity Commission [2014] UKSC 20 [2014] 2 WLR 808, he said that the common law can be seen also to develop alongside Convention Rights, and potentially provide complementary or more generous protection.

The speech concluded with an emphasis on the watchdog role which is fulfilled both by the press, and by others in the Internet age. The rights enshrined by article 8 are of fundamental importance in this context, said Lord Neuberger, and the law must both reflect the need to protect this new platform and recognise the need to determine the duties and responsibilities of those who exercise them.