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NY Times self-censorship sets worrying predecent

The decision of the New York Times to self-censor its online content by preventing British users downloading a story about the evidence against the men accused in the “liquid bomb plot” seems to set some sort of precedent.

It is using technology designed to target advertising to identify computers with British IP addresses and redirect those asking for a story headed “Details Emerge in British Terrorism Case” to a page which says access is denied.

The notice says: “On advice of legal counsel, this article is unavailable to readers of nytimes.com in Britain. This arises from the requirement in British law that prohibits publication of prejudicial information about the defendants prior to trial.”

If the approach of conforming to the law of the country in which a story is accessed became normal it would put a huge burden on editors and media lawyers. And with imperfect knowledge of hundreds of jurisdictions the decisions would inevitably become cautious. It is a worrying development.

The NYT seems to be conscious of problems ahead. In their own story on the blocking there is this key paragraph: “I think we have to take every case on its own facts,” said George Freeman, vice president and assistant general counsel of The New York Times Company. “But we’re dealing with a country that, while it doesn’t have a First Amendment, it does have a free press, and it’s our position that we ought to respect that country’s laws.”

So it is an editorial judgement not only on the laws of the country but on the freedom of our press. Try applying that across the world.

Given the quantity of information released by the Metropolitan Police in this case already the decisions on what can or cannot be published have been made more difficult.

The NYT story contains nothing that is surprising. It puts more flesh and detail on what the police have already said. It also looks at the criticism that John Reid, the home secretary, over-reacted in the statement he made after the arrests and the action he took. He is unlikely to be happy with the use of the word “hyperventilating” in this context.

And how do I know what the NYT story says. It took me less than a minute to get around the ban. I am no hacker: any reasonably web-savvy surfer can do the same. But if this kind of censorship became general the banning technology would become a lot more effective.

Silicon Valley Watcher looks at the issue of the media abiding by the rules of jurisdictions other than the one where the story is served.

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  1. Wordblog » Blog Archive » Regulators’ growing tentacles threaten international media says

    […] Only a couple of weeks ago The New York Times barred computers with UK IP addresses from viewing a story about details emerging of the “liquid bomb plot”. They did it on legal advice that it breached British law on pre-trial information. I posted on this at the time. Emily Bell, editor-in-chief of Guardian Unlimited wrote about regulation, law and location in the Editor’s Week column in last Saturday’s paper. She reached a rather grim conclusion: The PCC [Press Complaints Commission] and Ofcom are both thinking about whether the original position that online regulation is a fool’s errand can hold, or whether it is better to move first before another regulator steals your lunch. It does, however, seem that the days of the internet as an unfettered frontier are drawing to a close. […]