Afternoon Hearing on 26 January 2012

Richard Allan and Camilla Wright gave statements at this hearing

Hearing Transcript

(2.10 pm) MR BARR Our first witness this afternoon is Mr Allan from Facebook. LORD JUSTICE LEVESON Thank you. MR RICHARD BEECROFT ALLAN (affirmed) Questions by MR BARR MR BARR Mr Allan, good afternoon. Could you tell us your full name, please?
A. My full name is Richard Beecroft Allan.
Q. Are the contents of your witness statement true and correct to the best of your knowledge and belief?
A. They are.
Q. You tell us that you are the director of public policy for Europe, Middle East and Africa for Facebook?
A. That's correct.
Q. You're responsible for the company's involvement on matters of public policy across the region, including the United Kingdom. Your team works on a broad portfolio of issues, including privacy, online child safety, freedom of expression, e-commerce regulation and public sector uses of social media. Before joining Facebook in June 2009, you were the European government affairs director for Cisco and you've been an academic visitor at the Oxford Internet Institute. You also between 2008 and 2009 chaired the UK Cabinet Office's power of information taskforce, working on improving the use of government data. You were the Member of Parliament for Sheffield Hallam between 1997 and 2005, and you were appointed to the House of Lords in 2010.
A. That's correct.
Q. Can I ask you now a little bit about the product Facebook. You tell us that in essence the company develops technologies that facilitate the sharing by individuals of their information through what you call the social graph, the digital mapping of people's real-world social connections. Anyone over the age of 13 can sign up, but you wish to emphasise that Facebook does not itself produce the content that is shared via the service. You tell us a little bit more detail about the platform. It's made up of core site features and applications. Fundamental features include a person's home page and timeline. There is also a news feed it's not news in the sense that we may have been using it, but this is news about a user's friends and what they are posting?
A. Correct.
Q. About their activities. And that the application also has photography, event, videos, groups and pages, which are ways of connecting one user to another. There are various other communication channels, chat, personal messages, wall posts, pokes or status updates. Is that right?
A. That is correct.
Q. There is a development platform, which enables companies and developers to integrate their own applications and services with Facebook, and you tell us that the net result of offering these services is that there are 800 million active users globally, including some 30 million in the United Kingdom alone, and that number is not just people who have had accounts, but who have returned to the site in the last 30 days?
A. That's correct. LORD JUSTICE LEVESON Well, what percentage of the population of that I was about to say that's one in two, but it's more than one in two, because, of course, you can only get into it when you're 13.
A. It is, sir, yes. For the adult population of 13 plus, it's more than 50 per cent of the UK population. MR BARR Facebook employs 3,000 people worldwide. A lot of private and public sector organisations use Facebook services. For example, you tell us Facebook partnered with the Electoral Commission in the run-up to the last General Election in this country, indeed to encourage young people to register to vote, and the monarchy made extensive use of the service during last year's royal wedding celebrations. It's a service which is free to use at the point of use, and funding is derived mainly from advertising, but there is also supplementary revenue from the sale of Facebook Credits.
A. That's correct.
Q. Moving now to the corporate structure, Facebook's international headquarters are in Dublin, and the global headquarters are in Menlo Park, California. Can you help us with the distinction between international headquarters and global headquarters?
A. Yes, the headquarters operation in Dublin consists of around 400 people carrying out a very broad range of functions, including those which are directly related to users. Any use of the service outside the US and North America has a contract with Facebook Ireland for the delivery of that service to them. Then Facebook Ireland in turn has a number of subsidiary offices around the particular union. Of particular relevance here, it has an office in the UK, which provides a much more limited set of functions, primarily related to marketing and sales support.
Q. Indeed, you explain that in your witness statement, that Facebook UK Limited is really a small and supporting operation, and that the user is actually contracting with Facebook Ireland Limited?
A. That's correct.
Q. Having dealt with the product in outline, and the corporate structure, can I ask you, as I did with the witnesses from Google, a little bit about Facebook's approach to privacy in principle, please. Can we start with the document at tab 11 of the bundle. It's an article published by the Guardian on 11 January 2010, so just over two years ago, reporting the words of the Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, and he was saying that he thought that privacy was no longer a social norm. He's quoted as saying I'm looking at the third paragraph: "People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time." Can I ask you: what it is Facebook's approach in principle to the privacy of information?
A. So Facebook has created a platform whose express purpose is to allow people to connect with other people, be that family or friends or organisations of interest to them, and then to share information with that group of connections. So our core raison d'etre is to give people the ability to share personal information with others. But crucial to that is the notion that the individual controls what information they're sharing and who they may share it with, so they control both the content and the audience. So for us, privacy is a notion which is very much at the heart of what we're trying to do, but very much a notion that's allied with that concept of control. I guess we would contrast it with a notion of secrecy, keeping information entirely to yourself and not sharing it with anyone, where clearly a platform like ours is of no use to somebody who's not interested in sharing information with a group of people. So it's very much about sharing what you wish to share with the group with whom you wish to share it, and that's articulated when you use the service by a set of very clear controls. If I go on to the Facebook site, I'm offered the ability to share whether it's a photo or a textual comment or a link to something else and right in front of me is a little icon that says, "Do you want to share this with the whole world? Do you want to share it with all of your friends or do you just want to share it perhaps with a subset of them, your family or your closest friends?"
Q. Thank you. Like a lot of very large media companies, privacy has been a controversial issue for Facebook, and if I could take you to the last tab in the bundle, tab 12, we have an article there dating from February 2009, which reports the interest of the American regulator, the FTC, in changes to Facebook's privacy policies, which rather widened the uses which Facebook could put information to. Can you help us, please, with what the outcome of that FTC involvement was?
A. I'm pleased to be able to tell you that we reached a settlement with the FTC in November of last year, with a series of undertakings that we agreed to with them to ensure that, for example, we have clearly defined privacy officers both on the product side and the policy side within the company, that we will report regularly back to the FTC on what it is that we're doing, and that, for example, we will undertake certain forms of engagement with our users beyond those which we already do and which are very extensive, when we make certain forms of changes to the platform. So that agreement is there with the FTC, and I think it does I mean, the fact that this happened reflects the fact that as a platform Facebook is under an enormous amount of scrutiny, and that huge user base of 800 million users means that people are very willing to come forward if they have concerns or criticisms about the platform, and I would say equally we're willing to meet them and to try and find an agreement and a settlement.
Q. In addition to American regulation, of course, Facebook Ireland is subject separately to the regulation of the Irish authorities, and in particular their data protection commissioner. You have in the bundle the report of an audit, recent audit, dated 21 December 2011 into Facebook's activities from a data protection point of view. Is that right?
A. That's correct.
Q. I won't go into the details of that just at the moment, but to continue with the legal theme, it's right, isn't it, that Facebook, like Google whom we heard from, tries to comply as a matter of policy with the laws of the lands where it operates?
A. That's correct.
Q. Can I ask about the way in which the agreement between the individual user and Facebook Ireland works? As I understand it, at the core of the agreement is a statement of rights and responsibilities, and this sets out what it is that the user is promising to do and not to do. This is exhibited to your witness statement, and perhaps if we look at page 12, following the pagination at the bottom of the page LORD JUSTICE LEVESON 54812. Is that what you mean? MR BARR 54820. LORD JUSTICE LEVESON I see. So 12 on the internal numbering? MR BARR That's right. LORD JUSTICE LEVESON Yes. MR BARR There's a section of the statement of rights and responsibilities. Paragraph 5, "Protecting other people's rights": "We respect other people's rights and expect you to do the same." I won't go through all of it, but perhaps I could pick up on number 1: "You will not post content or take any action on Facebook that infringes or violates someone else's rights or otherwise violates the law. "2. We can remove any content or information you post on Facebook if we believe that it violates this statement "8. You will not post anyone's identification documents or sensitive financial information on Facebook." Does that give you the contractual underpinning to remove illegal material?
A. That's precisely the purpose of those clauses, yes. LORD JUSTICE LEVESON Is it just illegal?
A. There is a range of other materials, sir, that's set out in our community standards, which is a separate document that covers areas, for example, like nudity and pornography. So nudity and pornography that would otherwise be legal in many jurisdictions will be removed from Facebook as a matter of policy because we don't want that material on the site. So it does go way beyond the illegal into other forms of content that are simply regarded as unsuitable under our terms for the audience that we have. LORD JUSTICE LEVESON So that might include, for example, bullying?
A. Precisely, and there is you're right, sir, there are specific clauses on bullying and harassment, nudity and pornography, excessive violence, hate speech and other forms of content which we would regard as unsuitable for what we have, which is a general audience, 13 plus, across multiple cultures and jurisdictions. LORD JUSTICE LEVESON Because the problem is, of course, that unlike Google, which only provides you with an index and I don't intend to belittle the importance of an index you are hosting content and to that extent have a responsibility not for the content, because you're not putting it on and you haven't got the people to read it all, but you have some measure of control over it.
A. That's correct, sir, and I would say, and I think it's hopefully clear from the evidence we've given, that we fully accept that responsibility and have taken the necessary measures to make sure we can discharge it. MR BARR If we turn back one page from the section we were looking at in the exhibit at section 3, we have the safety section, which contains many of the prohibitions to which you've just referred. 6 is the prohibition on bullying, intimidating or harassing any user, 7 deals, amongst other things, with pornography, violence or threats, and 10: "You will not use Facebook to do anything unlawful, misleading, malicious or discriminatory."
A. Yes.
Q. An important feature of Facebook is that you have to use your real identity, don't you?
A. That's correct, yes.
Q. In the bundle, we needn't turn it up, is an example from a news report from a PCC report of a case in which a reporter had used a false identity to create a Facebook address. Can I take it from the terms that we've just looked at that that would be a breach of the Facebook terms and conditions and, if you'd been aware of it in advance, would have been an account which would have been closed?
A. Absolutely. If I can elaborate on that just a little, the real identity culture is at the core of what Facebook has done. You may be aware that there are a wide range of services on the Internet that offer a similar functionality, that people can connect with each other and form into groups. We believe that Facebook has been so successful precisely because it has enforced very robustly a policy that says: if you're coming on the platform, you must present yourself as yourself, so that when others engage with you, they can have a reasonable confidence that you are who you say you are. That means that people typically have 100 or 200 connections of people they know in the real world, and a much richer engagement, we think, than they would have on many of the other spaces on the Internet where you're talking with people operating under pseudonyms, made-up names LORD JUSTICE LEVESON But how do you know?
A. Most of the verification we get is precisely that social verification. If you come onto the platform and don't present yourself under your real identity, you don't have a meaningful experience. Conversely, if you do present yourself under your real identity, so if, for example, you connected with me, I would be able to see that you have an ecosystem of friends and family around you, and therefore reasonable confidence you are who you say you are. If you had no friends at all, or simply a random set of friends, then I would have a lot less confidence that you were who you said you were. LORD JUSTICE LEVESON Do you have mechanisms available to you I'm not going to ask what they are to check up on that sort of thing?
A. We have a security team who are constantly looking for the people trying to get around the system, and indeed, in many of perhaps the sort of hard cases we indeed might be looking at the sort of people who are carrying out malicious behaviour will use fake identities quite deliberately because they feel less accountable for doing so. So we have systems precisely to try and pick that up because we don't want those people on our platform, we don't want those identities on our platform. Yes, there are some systems in place, and we actually find the strongest protection, again, is that community of users. We effectively have an 800 million strong Neighbourhood Watch community of people who will very happily report to us if they think someone is a fake identity or behaving strangely. MR BARR Since Facebook took on the policy of real identity and enforced it rigorously, has there been any discernible change in the amount of objectionable content that's been posted and had to be removed?
A. Just to be clear, real identity has been at the core of what Facebook's done since the beginning, and we firmly believe that that's why, for the typical user of Facebook, they can be using it day in, day out, month in, month out, and never come across objectionable content. It really is a rare experience that one comes across content that is problematic on the Facebook platform, and that's because most people are feeling accountable. When they do something on Facebook, it's literally in front of their friends and family, and therefore people will overstep the mark, but they're much less likely to do so. What we've also found with our partners, that's been one of the reasons that Facebook has been taken up to such a high degree, so, for example, many newspapers now will use Facebook identities for people wanting to comment on the site. So you read an article, and instead of commenting as "Angry of Tunbridge Wells", you now comment as Richard Allan, and they found that people commenting in their real identities will engage in a better discussion than they would do when they were Angry of Tunbridge Wells.
Q. Can I ask you now about what mechanisms there are for dealing with posts which readers and users find objectionable? I understand there are various mechanisms, so perhaps we can deal with them one at a time. First of all if we deal with the horizontal controls, if I can call them that, between users. It's right, isn't it, that there are mechanisms for one user to object to the post of another directly and ask them to remove it?
A. That's right. We've created our system called social reporting really for two reasons. One is being very conscious of this scale that we have where people are posting phenomenal amounts of content, you're always looking for the most effective way of resolving a dispute. So having mechanisms where if somebody posts a photo of me I simply let them know, in most cases that will resolve the dispute. You don't need to escalate it either to Facebook or to a regulator or to a court to resolve that situation if we make it very simple for people to do that, fix things between themselves.
Q. So this is as simple as "I don't like that, please will you take it down"?
A. "Please remove it". And the second part of that is people do learn, and if I tell somebody that I don't like them posting photos of me, hopefully they're going to stop posting photos of me in future, because they'll have learnt from me. Whereas if an anonymous source simply removed that content, they may never get the message that it's me who's upset about it.
Q. And is there a function for allowing an intermediary to get involved in the user-to-user disagreement?
A. Precisely. We've also recognised that in some cases, and you might think particularly in those instances of bullying for a younger person, that it would be helpful to bring in a teacher, a parent or some other trusted adult and make them aware of the dispute, because you need to resolve that dispute between individuals in a physical space, you can't just resolve it just online. So the social reporting feature also allows you to say "Please send this report to a third party because I want to get them engaged in my dispute".
Q. There is though still an option to go straight to Facebook, isn't there, and complain about content?
A. Exactly. So there are reporting buttons right across the site and this design essentially tries to deal with it in a tiered way: resolve it between yourselves if you can, perhaps escalate to somebody else if that's appropriate. If the dispute is still going on, then escalate it to us and we can remove the content or remove the user, and of course in very extreme circumstances you may wish to escalate it to the public authorities in your country because there's something that requires their intervention.
Q. Just to be clear, does the user have to start at the bottom or can the user go straight to Facebook?
A. They get the choice. They get offered the different options, they can come straight to us if they choose to do so.
Q. When a complaint comes to you, whether it's after a failed attempt below or direct to you, what test does Facebook apply to the post of a UK user in deciding whether or not to take down the content?
A. The primary test is conformance with the statement of rights and responsibilities, and we actually find that most of the incidents that are reported to us actually, even including many of those where there may be an allegation of illegality, they're generally resolved because of some other breach of rights and responsibilities. Somebody may be using a fake identity to post the information, there may be nudity or pornography involved, there may be forms of hate speech that are unacceptable under our terms, therefore the situation can be resolved if you like by reference to the statement of rights and responsibilities rather than requiring a technical legal analysis.
Q. Sorry, carry on.
A. I was going to say for cases where it's clear that it's about illegality or illegal compliance in the UK specifically, then we would apply the test, I think similar to many other companies, of saying: if it's not in conformance with UK law and it's been posted by a user in the UK, then that user has breached our terms of service by making that posting and then we'll take the appropriate action.
Q. You've explained the tools, the weapons in your arsenal, if I put it that way. One is to just remove a post. At a more serious level, you can prevent a user using the system at all. There's a third way, blocking content. You are technically able, if needs be, to block certain content to certain destinations; is that right?
A. Yes. I think it's perhaps important to understand the distinction between a service like Facebook and I think you heard evidence earlier about people using different national domain names to create different entities like Google does and some other service providers, and Facebook, which is a single global community. It's designed so that I can speak with my cousin in the United States, so it makes no sense to have a UK Facebook and an American Facebook. There is one Facebook. Given that we have that structure, that design goal, to have a single global community, there are sometimes exceptional circumstances where we get a report of content that is illegal in one jurisdiction and not in others, and there are technical means available to restrict the access to some of the content on Facebook on the basis of the person who is viewing it. It's not something we do by preference, and as I say our experience is that it's not something that we commonly have to do, because most of the breaches are breaches of our terms of service that are global breaches and therefore actionable globally.
Q. I was talking earlier about the situation where one user is objecting to the material posted by another. Can I ask you now about the situation where a non-user, a third party learns that objectionable material has been posted by a Facebook user. How does such a person complain to you about that?
A. So we offer an extensive help centre on the service, and the help centre contains material directed to people who use the service but also directed towards people who don't use the service and they can go there and carry out searches on some of the common terms you might think of like defamation, invasion of privacy and so on, and they will find material that directs them towards getting help. Typically they may need to use a web form in order to report things, because they can't report it directly themselves. We also find in practice that again because of the large number of people now using Facebook, that in practice people will simply find somebody else who is a user of Facebook and get them to report it for them.
Q. Does that third-party reporting system allow complaints of defamation and privacy invasion to be made?
A. So we have a generic reporting term that covers which is designed to allow people to give us notice of potential illegal content and the kinds of things they give us notice of are typically a combination of intellectual property violations, copyright, trademark, et cetera, and issues like defamation and invasion of privacy. So there is a form available on the site that people can use to report content that they believe is illegal and in order to put us on notice of that illegal content.
Q. The Inquiry has heard some evidence about the speed at which new media companies are able to deal with complaints and complaining that they're not dealt with quickly enough. Are you able to help us with how quickly Facebook is able to turn around complaints of privacy and defamation made by UK users?
A. Yes. In common with what you'll hear from companies generally, we will operate a system where we can't entirely control the inputs, because they will be responsive to particular pressures at a particular time, but we do have some targets and I checked with the legal team who deal with this class of violation, the material that comes in as a form of notice, including defamatory material, and their expected turnaround time is 24 to 48 hours. That's what they aim to do.
Q. We heard from the Google witnesses that they have lawyers adjudicating on whether or not material is defamatory and making decisions as to whether or not it should be taken down. Do you do the same?
A. We have teams both in Dublin and in our California offices who are a combination of lawyers and non-lawyers. Our front line staff are known as our user operation staff and we train a set of those staff particularly in these kinds of violations. So in many cases it can be fairly obvious, a trademark or a copyright violation, for example, can be very straightforward. Some forms of defamation can be very straightforward, particularly where the case is well known. Those staff are trained to identify and deal quickly with those cases that are obvious, and then are able to escalate through, if you like, the more legally trained staff, and even through to outside counsel, if necessary, for very specific cases where there's some area of contention or doubt.
Q. Can I ask you now about more complicated cases? Take, for example, a photograph which is a gross invasion of privacy, which goes viral throughout the Internet, but including very many Facebook users. If you received a complaint about such a photograph from a UK user, what can Facebook do about that?
A. The system that we operate is a notice and take-down system and the notice relates to a specific item of content on the site rather than to, if you like, a generic piece of content, so again I think similar to a response you may have heard elsewhere, we don't have in place a system that allows us to say this photo should be removed from every place on which it occurs on the site, but we could have in place reporting links on every photo on the site so people can report them individually.
Q. For a photograph that has gone around thousands or even millions of users, that means that the subject of the intrusion has to make, if it's a million copies of the photograph, a million separate requests for it to come down. Is that right?
A. I think that's correct for the Internet generally, and yes, correct for Facebook. LORD JUSTICE LEVESON Lord Allan, could you speak a bit more slowly, please, because we're trying to keep a track of it.
A. Okay, sorry. MR BARR Does that mean for all practical purposes that there are some viral transmissions of images or texts which, once out there, are almost impossible to put back into the bottle?
A. I think practically on the Internet, yes. This is I think there is a much broader debate, shall we say, on the Internet, of which I think the issues before this Inquiry are very much a part of that debate, around how one stops content of all sorts that is either grossly illegal or, for example, copyright infringement material, how one stops that spreading across the Internet, and I think this is a common challenge that is faced in all of those debates, that there are the ability to copy digital material instantaneously does represent a new set of challenges. LORD JUSTICE LEVESON Has this debate reached any conclusion?
A. It hasn't, if I say respectfully. I mean it is an incredibly fierce debate, particularly around the copyright area. I'd say that's where it's become most advanced, and there are huge debates in many countries around the world about how to deal with it there. LORD JUSTICE LEVESON It's not just of course written copyright, it's also one knows about music, films, the rest of it. Everything.
A. Precisely. I think that's where perhaps if I can suggest there may be some interesting material for your Inquiry, because they are looking at similar issues, like how does one stop a particular film clip being copied across the Internet, a photo. Some of the technical issues and the philosophical issues about what's the responsibility of the person who posted it, what's the responsibility of the intermediary, how do we prevent this without adversely impacting freedom of expression, I think some of those debates are consistent with some of the issues that you're examining. LORD JUSTICE LEVESON The other problem is that you may get a book or an article, but if one of them if they're copied in just a slightly different form, you have to have some sort of mechanism to identify them, which I would have thought quite difficult.
A. Precisely. That's another area which again has become very current in these broader debates around does one simply create an incentive for the clever technologist to find a technological work-around of a regulatory measure designed to prevent something, and all of these factors I think are in trying to get to the right solution for creating good order across the Internet, I think all of these factors are relevant. MR BARR Is there any guidance given to users which might inform them about when they should think twice before further disseminating material?
A. Yes. One of the innovations that we've been working on and again, to be very clear, we regard our success as being dependent on a number of factors. I already talked about real identity as one of them. Providing a safe and orderly environment in which your daily experience is not coming across illegal or offensive material in terms of our terms of service is another of them. So we're constantly trying to assist the people who use our service to understand what the limits are, what they can and can't do. One of the innovations that we're working on at the moment is where we've had to remove a piece of content, to post a message, so when that user next logs on, they get a message right in front of them that says, "Hey, you've reached our terms of service, this is what you did, you must click here to acknowledge that you breached the terms of service before you can carry on using Facebook", so that kind of thing, which we call an educational checkpoint, makes people stop and take some education, is an example of the kind of innovation that we think can provide for a very safe environment and one in which hopefully people get better behaved over time because they understand the rules better.
Q. Another problem to bowl at you, and which you touch upon in your witness statement, is what happens when you have a link in a post which is a link to material which is very largely not a problem, but includes some objectionable content. What could you do in that circumstance?
A. All the time our starting point and again I think the starting point for most of our peers is that we've created a platform on which people should be free to speak, as long as they do that within our rules. So if they are part of their speech is that they're interested in linking to a newspaper site, for example the New York Times, and discuss material on there, that should be fine. You could imagine the circumstances under which somebody has a problem with one particular article on the New York Times, and in those circumstances, we would regard it as disproportionate to remove all links to that publication because of the one article. Again, I think there's a very comparable debate going on in the copyright space about at what point does a site that someone might link to become wholly illegal or primarily illegal and therefore subject to some form of action, removal, and at what point does that site that's otherwise perfectly legitimate that happens to have a very small amount of illegal material, to what extent should one be reasonably permissive of that site having connections?
Q. Can I ask you now about regulation? What is Facebook's view about decisions of domestic regulators? For example, in this country, we have the Press Complaints Commission. Would you regard a decision of the PCC as being conclusive or at least very cogent proof that material was objectionable?
A. I looked at the examples that you kindly sent from the PCC, and I think what was interesting to me was that they seemed to be rather examining the behaviour of newspapers in taking material from Facebook and using it, rather than directed at things that were posted on Facebook.
Q. We'll certainly come to that aspect in a moment. But have you come across PCC decisions being used to support an application to take material down?
A. No, not that I'm aware of. The cases we've been aware of have rather been of that nature, people taking material from Facebook elsewhere rather than putting material onto Facebook, and the PCC or PCC judgments in some way being seen as part of that, of a complaint to Facebook. Again, looking at it structurally, I would imagine that if the PCC have found against a newspaper and they've published a correction, then anyone on Facebook who linked to that newspaper would, one would hope, see the corrected version rather than the original version that was subject to complaint.
Q. Indeed and one would expect compliance by someone who was within the PCC scheme with the judgment. Can I ask you now about what Facebook's position might be if there were to be, and I stress the "if", a future media regulator in this country dealing with press complaints, if it were to find content objectionable and say so and it was material posted on Facebook. Is Facebook likely to be receptive to such decisions and prepared to take such material down?
A. It's not surprising to say I think any Internet provider would want to give this considerable thought, but just to start that process off, it does seem to me that looking at the PCC judgments in most of those cases that citizens typically place different stock on a piece of content on the basis of whether it's posted on a social network like Facebook or printed in a newspaper. In other words, people were in some cases very comfortable to have material online on a social network service like ours, it wasn't causing them a problem, but the moment that it was put into an editorialised authoritative source like a newspaper, it became significantly problematic for them. So I think that if one is moving towards the kind of model that you've discussed with ourselves and other witnesses, for us it would be important to distinguish editorialised published content from what one might call chatter on the Internet, and that to make an adjudication about editorialised published content would in turn feed through to the Internet platforms. If the original material were corrected, that in turn would feed through to anyone who linked to that original material in an editorialised publication. If the model is to somehow make judgments about the kind of chatter that people do on Internet sites, I think my starting point would be to have concerns about whether that's workable and whether proportionate to the offence that's being caused.
Q. Not least given the number of users?
A. Yes, and the amount of content that's simply on the site.
Q. Can I explore just a step further: if there was to be a future regulator to whom a person could apply directly and make a complaint about a Facebook posting and that Facebook was expected then to respond to that complaint and be the subject of a binding adjudication by the body, what would Facebook's response be to such a proposal?
A. So to look at the proposal, but to, I think, issue some words of caution, that we are familiar with dealing with disputes between people about content at very large scale and getting to that point where we feel confident about dealing with those complaints has been very challenging, and is for any Internet service in terms of getting systems that can cope with the amount of conversations that are now taking place across the Internet. If you were setting out to create something similar as a regulatory body, then I would offer some words of caution about the thresholds you apply before you start investigating, so you're not ending up simply unable to cope with the volume, and if you do decide to proceed, then we could offer some expert guidance on how to cope with volumes of complaints on the Internet. LORD JUSTICE LEVESON But is there a search mechanism on Facebook?
A. There is a search mechanism. It's not the same as the Google-type search mechanism because it's generally just searching public content. Again, sir, one of the crucial distinctions between a social network likes ours and general searchable Internet content is that very large amounts of the content is only published between small groups of individuals. LORD JUSTICE LEVESON Yes.
A. Rather than to the whole world. And therefore are not searchable, sorry, I should say, for that reason. LORD JUSTICE LEVESON Yes. And not at the core of the issues that concern me, because what you're really saying is that Facebook is one giant for children's playground conversation or for other groups' collective communal conversations?
A. I think that's a very very good analogy, yes. A lot of the conversation is the chatter in the pub, if you're an adult, or the chatter in the playground if you're younger. It happens to be online and digital, but the way in which people approach those conversations is very similar to any other kind of conversation. LORD JUSTICE LEVESON Could I ask a question which may reduce the impact of all this: does it have a shelf life? In other words, if you've put some material on Facebook, is it there forever?
A. So it's the individual themselves who decides when to put the content on and when to take it off. We're very clear, our terms of service again state very clearly you own the content on Facebook. We're just undergoing a transition at the moment to a different way of displaying the content that a user posts to something called Timeline. When we've gone through that transition, any user will be able to see all the content they've ever posted on Facebook and be able with a click to delete it or restrict the audience or change it. So we, Facebook, don't put the shelf life on, but we give individuals the tools to decide LORD JUSTICE LEVESON The opportunity to decide their own shelf life. I've got it.
A. Precisely. MR BARR I said I would return to the question of others using or misusing material which has been posted on Facebook, and one of the articles that we've put into your bundle concerns the survivors of the Dunblane massacre and how Facebook material which they had posted was used in a story about the anniversary of the tragedy at Dunblane. Is there anything that Facebook can do to prevent that sort of misuse of Facebook-posted material?
A. The primary way in which we approach this is to offer the user education and tools, so the kind of tools they have are their ability to choose who are on their friends list, which audience they have for a piece of content, to block people if people are trying to access their data they don't like, they can create a block so that person can never access them. So we've given them the toolkit to do that, because of course sometimes people will go around that and get hold of the content. I'm afraid once they've taken the photo and copied it off to somewhere else or taken the content and copied it elsewhere, then there's nothing at that stage that Facebook can do to recover that content. It is an area where, I guess, as a citizen I can see there is potentially a gap now between the individual citizen's ability perhaps to take action about misuse of their data, where it's been copied digitally from the Internet, but I think it's not something the service provider can do once the content is in another environment.
Q. Returning to your witness statement, is it right that Facebook works with domestic institutions such as the Advertising Standards Agency and the Information Commissioners' Office?
A. That's correct, yes. MR BARR I think that's all I have for you. Thank you very much indeed.
A. Thank you. LORD JUSTICE LEVESON Sorry, one of the great issues that the Inquiry is facing is the extent to which what might be described as the traditional media is being impacted by social media and other similar types of publication online, and the concern that information that they are not permitted to publish can spin around social media sites in a way that puts them at a commercial disadvantage, but also could prejudice proceedings or whatever. I'm not saying that Facebook were at all involved in, for example, identifying the name of somebody who had sought an injunction, and whether that came to Facebook, it doesn't really matter, because it could equally come through any one of these routes. Has your industry given any thought to how that position can be regularised or made better, because one of the arguments that is presented to me is they don't put it in this way, but I will: "Why are you hitting me, because however you control me, there are a whole load of other people out there who are just poking their thumbs up at you and there's nothing you can do about it"?
A. I would make two points on that. Firstly, I think, just to put in context the relationship between the media and social media, that actually we are becoming one of the major distribution channels for traditional editorialised media content. So somebody like the Guardian has now over 5 million people using an application where they bring the Guardian content into Facebook, and we drive traffic for them and help them to share their material across social media. We certainly see it as much more complementary set of things that we offer. They offer great content, we don't produce content. We offer great distribution. That can be a challenge for them to distribute through their traditional websites. So I think the relationship is hopefully less confrontational than LORD JUSTICE LEVESON No, I don't think they were saying it's confrontational. It's used to me as a confrontation with me saying, "It's all very well you having a go at us, but"
A. To put that on one side and come then to your comments about what do people say on our environment, as I understood it, should that be equalised with what people can say in their environment, again to come back to that analogy of the chatter, the conversation in a social space, to us that would be like saying you should equalise what people are allowed to say in a pub with what people can say in a newspaper. They are just different ways of speaking, and of course people do gossip in pubs and spread names and so on in the same way that they do online. Without unravelling the Internet and shutting down or severely curtailing these kinds of services, I find it hard myself to see how one can deal with that. LORD JUSTICE LEVESON Because there is no mechanism whereby you can, even if you wanted to, really control content, save for individually looking at a particular post and saying, "That shouldn't be there, it's off"?
A. Exactly. And the kind of measures that one could take to control content, you know, at a deeper network level, I think are ones that most people would regard as disproportionate and excessive. LORD JUSTICE LEVESON That's the point. Because as soon as you have to insert a human being into the process of making a decision, you have made it extremely labour intensive and utterly incompatible with trying to service the need of 30 million users across the UK.
A. I can only agree. LORD JUSTICE LEVESON Yes, well, I think I'm trying to summarise your evidence rather than make some new suggestion. Lord Allan, thank you very much indeed.
A. Thank you. LORD JUSTICE LEVESON We have one witness left. Let's just have five minutes now before we take the witness. Thank you. (3.02 pm) (A short break) (3.07 pm MS PATRY HOSKINS Good afternoon, sir. The final witness today is Ms Camilla Wright from Popbitch. MS CAMILLA JANE WRIGHT (affirmed) Questions by MS PATRY HOSKINS MS PATRY HOSKINS Ms Wright, please state your full name to the Inquiry.
A. I'm Camilla Jane Wright.
Q. You should find behind tab 1 of the bundle you have in front of you your witness statement to the Inquiry?
A. Yes.
Q. Can you confirm that the contents of that statement are true to the best of your knowledge and belief?
A. Yes, they are.
Q. I'm going to touch first of all on your career history before we come on to look at the role of Popbitch. At paragraph 5 of your statement, you explain that after university you gained expertise in business and the third sector, and then you started to write for economic and financial magazines. You then started to write on a freelance basis on popular culture issues and then you co-founded Popbitch in the year 2000, and since 2004 you have been full-time publisher and editor.
A. Yes.
Q. You explain that you also write for magazines, tabloids and broadsheets on a freelance basis, offering comment on the media and on popular culture?
A. Yes.
Q. Is that correct?
A. That's right.
Q. Can I ask now about Popbitch itself, please. You explain the role of Popbitch and what it does in paragraph 6 of your statement, but can I summarise it in this way: it's a website and its content really comprises two main elements: a weekly newsletter, which is sent to those who have subscribed to Popbitch by email, and you have around 350,000 subscribers
A. Yes.
Q. who receive the email on a weekly basis. And that newsletter is also published on the website?
A. Yes.
Q. And then you have a message board, where registered users can post and discuss various topics?
A. We have a full website where content relevant to us is posted and part of that is a message board or forum.
Q. Okay. Can I ask you firstly about the newsletter briefly. As for the content of the newsletter, you explained to us that this is news about popular culture, politics, sports, celebrities, the entertainment industry and the media. There are also links to videos, reviews and so on.
A. That's right.
Q. There's also a joke at the end?
A. There's always a joke.
Q. And the newsletter is text based. You explain to us that you made a conscious decision from the outset not to have paparazzi-type photographs of celebrities in the newsletter or on the website; is that right?
A. That's right.
Q. As for who the newsletter is aimed at, you explain in paragraph 7 that it's aimed at a time poor subscriber base who nonetheless want to keep up with the world and the content is designed to be light-hearted, humorous and entertaining?
A. We look at it as a ten-minute entertainment in a working week.
Q. You say you now have 350,000 subscribers to the newsletter. How did it start out?
A. We started out just basically putting together stories for friends from the media and entertainment industry. We would gather together some funny stories, put them together, email them to friends. We kind of started it because the world of entertainment is very exciting, we all many of us love it, but it's very controlled. The entertainment industry controls what you write about it a lot. It's very PR-driven. Working freelance for magazines, you very much were stopped from writing things that you wanted to write, just interesting things, nothing against the law or anything. LORD JUSTICE LEVESON "Controlled" is not the word that's been used to describe it in the course of the last few months in this Inquiry, so you're providing me with a slightly different take on it.
A. Well, I think so. There's a very, very big PR industry, which I think can act as gatekeepers to what is said about celebrities, famous people, and very much they like to tell magazines and newspapers what can be written. I'm sure I think the people from Hello! and OK! last week said to you that 70 to 80 per cent of what goes in the magazines is placed there by the agents and the managers and the PRs of celebrities. So if you want to write about people, you have to be very careful, in a commercial sense, what's written. If you approach somebody whose publicist maybe represents 50 others, if you don't write what they like, they don't like you to talk to their other clients. If perhaps you want to say something about somebody who is the brand ambassador for a big brand, you have to be careful that they don't pull their advertising. So there are commercial concerns that the mainstream media face every day when writing about this world. And that's maybe a slightly different perspective from the one you've had. MS PATRY HOSKINS You were just telling us how you came to set up Popbitch and how it all started. You explained that when you were freelancing you found that the world of celebrity was very controlled, so how did that lead you on to Popbitch?
A. It's very cheap to send out emails. It's not expensive to set up a website. You can and we started to send out information to friends. People then asked to subscribe to it, so we set up a very simple mechanism to do that, and then over time more and more people wanted to subscribe to it, which adds to your costs, but now we have a system that can send out emails to 350,000 people very easily. The content has changed as we've gone along. We've broadened it to anything that people are interested in in popular culture. On one side is the stories behind the stories, what's going on in the media that covers popular culture. I guess, similar to Street of Shame in Private Eye, but we look at the celebrity media, and also the light-hearted details, jokes about people and films in any aspect of popular culture.
Q. I was going to ask about paragraph 8 of your statement. You explain that the idea was to reference the old-style Hollywood magazines which popularised the publication of insider information, and that you try to act in the style of something like a Private Eye for the celebrity world. Would that be a comparison you're happy to make
A. Yes.
Q. between you and, say, a publication like Private Eye?
A. Parts of it works in a similar way, yes.
Q. You go on to say that Popbitch doesn't just cover the stars of popular culture, but looks behind the scenes at areas missed by the popular media, plus the stories behind the stories and why certain stories got published and others didn't. You look at the hypocritical gap between how those in the public eye seek to be portrayed and how they really act. That leads me neatly on to issues of standards and the public interest. I'm going to ask you in a moment whether you consider the stories that you publish in your newsletter to be or to have a public interest in a moment, but first of all it may be instructive to examine an example or two of the types of stories that you run in the newsletter. Not in the bundle, but what I've done is printed out the latest version of the newsletter. Do you have "For Chuck's Sake"?
A. I do. MS PATRY HOSKINS Do you have it? LORD JUSTICE LEVESON Yes. One page? MS PATRY HOSKINS Yes, I only printed out part of it. Can I check whether you have it? If not, can I pass a copy? We'll wait until the technician has it, so she can show it on screen.
A. Sure.
Q. I just want to examine the sort of format, first of all. Right at the top, under the headline with a name, there's a kind of advertising or promotional feature?
A. That's right.
Q. Then there are some quotations, and then under the main heading "Popbitch" there is a story about Mr Kris Humphries, former husband of Kim Kardashian, do you see that?
A. That's right.
Q. I don't know if that's visible on the screen LORD JUSTICE LEVESON Lower down. MS PATRY HOSKINS Perfect. This is a story about Kris Humphries who was playing at Madison Square Gardens just before Christmas. He came on court to play, whereupon he was promptly and rather violently booed by the crowd. He was then taken off shortly afterwards and the crowd began chanting, "We want Kris, we want Kris". Why? So that he would come back on and they could boo him some more. You say: "If there is a more concise allegory for the role of celebrities in the 21st century we have yet to hear it." Just explain to us just by using the example how you would source a story like that?
A. This story came from somebody I know very well who was at the game, who at the time relayed what happened to us. We checked that he was playing there, everything seemed to match. We added the second paragraph because I guess what Popbitch does, it's trying to entertain but it's also trying to inform. We were just trying to show that by taking an example of a story that was going on now that nobody else had perhaps covered, that this is what celebrities are almost used for in society. They're there for our fun, but also they take it can get a bit darker, and they're there for people to joke at. So that's where the story came from, and that was the point of putting it in.
Q. All right. Can I ask you about one other story on that page.
A. Sure.
Q. It's the one almost at the end. There's a final story about Joan Collins, but we'll ignore that one for the moment. The one just above that says this: "In the first draft of the Dr No screenplay, the writers decided that Dr No should be a monkey." Why did you publish a story like that?
A. I think it's an entertaining fact. It's the weird little details in popular culture that I think we as humans respond to. That came from Cubby Broccoli's biography, which has just been published. He was the producer of all the James Bond films and that just jumped out at me, that of all the things about the first Dr No film that would have possibly changed the history of all the James Bond films for us is if Dr No had been played by a monkey.
Q. I don't think we need to look at any other I'm just trying to understand the product. LORD JUSTICE LEVESON No, I understand.
Q. What I want to now do is understand the process by which you decide whether or not a story is going to feature in the newsletter. You say in your witness statement at paragraph 45 that Popbitch is a commercial product, reliant on mainstream advertisers and sponsors, and therefore it's important to have good editorial standards. Now, why? How does that follow?
A. I don't think it is good to be an inaccurate publication. I think it is good, if you are adding to the plurality of media voices out there, trying to be accurate, trying to tell true stories, perhaps stories that other people aren't doing, just to add to the breadth of knowledge of the world, is a good thing. And if you were asking people to trust you with their brand, to for them to put their faith in what you're writing, then you owe it to them and to yourselves to have high standards. We're saying that we have 350,000 subscribers who regularly read this, and therefore, if you want to put your brand to the subscribers, somewhere there's a you know, there is a reputable product for you to be involved with. We've never had an advertiser try and tell us what to write or to take anything out, so it's gone okay so far.
Q. All right, so that's what you say about good editorial standards. Let me ask you now about the process. I've asked you about sources.
A. Sure.
Q. But at paragraph 11 onwards you say a lot more about the way in which material is sourced. If I can summarise it in this way, you say that the newsletter is written largely by a network of contributors
A. It's written in our office by me and a very small team, but we largely source our stories from a network of contributors that are all around the world.
Q. You say these are basically a group of about 200 to 250 trusted sources in this circle?
A. Yes.
Q. That are known to you or your closest team members. So is your evidence in that respect simply that a story will come in from one of those sources and just because of who they are and the fact that you trust them, that will be good enough, or are there any other checks?
A. It will be for some stories, but for some stories that's not enough. You would want to get a second source to check the plausibility or gain extra evidence to support it.
Q. What would make you go away and check?
A. Very much depends case by case on a story. If it's from somebody who you are absolutely convinced that has foolproof knowledge, I would take it. If it's a contentious or controversial story, I would want to get somebody else to be able to back up what they're saying and try and find, if possible, some evidence to support what they're both saying.
Q. You say that if the stories are not originated from one of your inner circle of trusted sources, stories can come in in a number of other ways. This is paragraph 13 onwards. Unsolicited email tips and stories, registered users of the message board, stories found by staff writers or freelance contributors and personal experience written in by readers.
A. Yes.
Q. Those examples seem to be a million miles away from trusted sources that you know well, so what process is undertaken there when stories come in through that type of source?
A. We've had some amazing stories sent in from anonymous sources that turn out to be 100 per cent true. We would start off by doing a simple check on the veracity of the information we've got. About 50 per cent of things that get sent in you can work out right away aren't true just by a couple of phone calls or a simple Google check. Maybe it's about a pop band in one country and they actually are in another country on that day. So that would be where you would start. You would then try and find from somebody that you do know well and somebody who is likely to know at least if this information is plausible whether or not this is true. At the same time, we would engage in an email exchange with the third person, the anonymous user. If they're willing to discuss with you how they got the story, where they got the story, a few more details, you can largely work out whether or not there's truth in it. From personal experiences, we tend to write them up as "X writes ". I give it as a personal experience. These tend to be, "I met a celebrity in the bar last night, they were buying a gin and tonic". That kind of level of contentious subject-matter.
Q. Does that somehow improve things? If you don't say in your newsletter simply "X celebrity was in a bar and this happened", but you say, "Someone has written in and said that X celebrity was in a bar on a particular night", does that make any conceivable difference?
A. I think people writing on the Internet and people reading on the Internet, as I think the guy from Facebook touched on earlier, is different, somehow, to reading traditional media. It's how you experience it. A lot of our facts and stories are the same sort of thing that could be found in a newspaper or magazine, they carry our editorial stamp, but the Internet has evolved so that it's a two-way conversation between reader and writer. I think media theorists call them a network public rather than an audience. Readers expect to be involved in shaping the stories, getting to the bottom of something. So we would put something out there saying, "Somebody told us this", expecting somebody else to actually verify it. "Actually, we have a different experience. Yes, I was in that bar as well, this is what happened." So a percentage of our stories work in that way. I think that's how blogs work, stories, comments. It's just it gives the Internet is just evolving in a slightly different way to traditional media, and I guess our product has evolved as part of the Internet, so if you are reading Popbitch, you understand what you're reading, you understand that readers are sharing their experiences with you and you can share yours back.
Q. You explain later on in your statement that you never pay for tips or stories. Why is that?
A. I think if you start adding a financial inducement to somebody for information, they could give you stories that they know they shouldn't or they could hurt their jobs or they could even give you embellished information in order to get the money, and therefore taking that temptation out of people's way, we are hoping that there will be fewer of those stories that come to us.
Q. All right. Do you consider yourself to be bound by the laws of the UK? Libel laws
A. Yes, publishing in the UK, we are bound by UK media law.
Q. So presumably you have to ensure that the stories are not libellous or defamatory?
A. That is our intention.
Q. Let's assume for a moment that you're satisfied that a particular story that has come in to you won't fall foul of libel or defamation laws and you're happy that it's accurate, so you've got to that point. I want to understand what other considerations you bear in mind before deciding whether or not to publish in your newsletter. Do you consider whether it's an invasion of that particular person's privacy, for example?
A. In an era where injunctions have been such a much-talked-about thing, that obviously has to be a consideration. I think if I could put it this way, Popbitch is an entertainment product, therefore we are trying to do no more than poke fun at people in the world of celebrity, and therefore we'd add in some extra things is the story funny? Is there a bit of a punchline? We get a lot of stories in which we don't print, which are things like somebody's gone to rehab, somebody's ill, somebody has cancer, or it's about their children. You could probably publish them, but they're not going to make people laugh, so we would look on that maybe as an extra defining process.
Q. I'll ask you about public interest in a moment. You say that, but Popbitch famously was able to say that Victoria Beckham was pregnant, correctly say that Victoria Beckham was pregnant before any other media organisation in the UK was able to confirm that, and that's not something which just is published to make people laugh. That's an interesting titbit about
A. Yes.
Q. someone's life. It could also have been said to be an invasion of Victoria Beckham's privacy to publish that before anyone else knew. In that kind of story, would you take into account the fact that the story may be an invasion of that person's privacy?
A. It was a long time ago. As far as I can remember with this story, people were talking about it quite openly; they just hadn't printed it. We printed the story. I would be I think since then much more careful about making sure that a pregnancy was beyond 12 weeks before in this case, this was that as well, but I would be very careful about doing that. I don't think we've actually touched on that for several years. LORD JUSTICE LEVESON It's interesting that as you've been giving evidence you've used the words "truth", "accurate", you've there used the "12 weeks". All these terms are to be found in the PCC code.
A. Mm-hm. LORD JUSTICE LEVESON Is that a code that you've considered?
A. I'm aware of the code, yes. I don't know whether I don't we're not a part of the PCC and we're not a newspaper, but I am aware of the code. LORD JUSTICE LEVESON You don't have to be a newspaper. There are lots of magazines that are part of the PCC. I know that Mr Hislop isn't.
A. No. LORD JUSTICE LEVESON He's made that very clear and explained why. But you compare yourself to Street of Shame for popular culture, but Street of Shame carries with it sometimes some potentially defamatory material, and Mr Hislop knew exactly how many libel actions he'd been the subject of, which, as you've just identified and recognised, could hit you in just the same way.
A. Sure. LORD JUSTICE LEVESON You're not protected from that.
A. No, absolutely. LORD JUSTICE LEVESON So I'm just wondering what the problem is that you have with something like the PCC.
A. Our self-regulation has worked for us, it's possibly been stronger than the PCC LORD JUSTICE LEVESON Self-regulation doesn't quite mean that. Self-regulation is the industry, the body, the collective looking at the one. What you're talking about is personal regulation, in other words your own set of rules.
A. That's right. LORD JUSTICE LEVESON Sorry. MS PATRY HOSKINS That's all right. Do you consider when you are I'm glad I don't have to ask many of my questions, now. When you're deciding whether or not to publish a story in the newsletter, do you consider whether it's in the public interest to publish it, and what does the public interest mean in your view, in the context of the information that you are publishing?
A. I've said in my witness statement I think it's helpful to look at the definition of public interest I think as it stands, or at least as it seems to be looked at. It's not broad enough.
Q. Is this paragraph 48 of your statement?
A. Paragraph 48. It's not fit for purpose for the culture we're in now.
Q. Can we explore that a little?
A. Definitely. These days the power to shape and influence people's lives doesn't just come from politicians and policy making. The people who have possibly greater influence over the public come from a much wider pool. I would say nobody who is a public figure has that influence, and some people use it very consciously. You see film stars becoming the defining voices of the Balkans, Darfur. You have people straying into public policy areas, charities are lining up celebrities to talk to the public, fashion labels pay famous people to wear their clothes, to influence behavioural patterns in consumerism. David Beckham was the person chosen to represent Britain in our Olympic bid. It wasn't a politician. So how people live and behave in the wider sense of the public eye seems to have a very strong effect on the public. Just by being in the public eye is enough, and therefore I think that it would be more in the public interest to widen what should and shouldn't be known, what shouldn't be talked of, because I think there's good reason to see if there's a gap between people's private life and public life as they have this power over us.
Q. I understand the argument that celebrities pervade our culture in a much wider sense than they used to, I understand that. What I want to understand from what you've just said is to what extent that means that their private life should be open to scrutiny by Popbitch or anyone else. Are you saying that anyone who is a public figure can have their private life scrutinised or should have their private life scrutinised in that way simply because of the fact that celebrity culture has evolved in the way that it has?
A. I think people will chatter about and scrutinise public figures as and when they choose to. As we heard earlier, there's the conversation on Facebook every day. If you mean should publishers do this, then it's a very difficult area, there's going to be a grey area between who's put their public life up for scrutiny and therefore where there's a gap between how they're appearing and how they're they are in real life matters to us. Does that mean that everybody has no privacy? No, I don't think so, but
Q. Where do you draw the line? Where does Popbitch draw the line?
A. It's a moving line. It's not there is no absolute line, I don't think. We draw the line, I would say, we look at who is making themselves influential, and if so, are they living up to it. I think beyond that it's very difficult to say where a line is, but I think that would be a good place to start.
Q. Are there any celebrities that you simply would not mention on Popbitch because they are demonstrably private, they have said publicly that they do not wish their private life to be touched upon by the media? I am going to give you the example of JK Rowling, who's made it absolutely clear both publicly and in the context of litigation that she just doesn't want her private life to be discussed, put out there in the public domain. Not necessarily talking about her, you don't have to give me an example about her, but are there celebrities that you simply wouldn't publish stories about because they've said they don't want stories to be published about them?
A. I don't know if it's celebrities who have said they don't want to be talked about, I don't know if that should come into it, but there are a lot of people who live their lives beyond their talent privately, and therefore it would be very unlikely that we would either get any interesting stories about them or get new stories about them.
Q. So the line actually for you is not whether they've said they want to be private but actually whether
A. But their actions, but their actions.
Q. but actually whether your readers would be interested and whether
A. And that is by their action. If they don't do things which bring them somebody can say they want their life to be private, but live it quite publicly. If they say they want their life to be private and do so, that would be enough, I guess, we wouldn't look at writing about them.
Q. Ms Wright, the answer you gave me a moment ago was that you would draw the line, really, if there were no stories around or you just didn't get the information or you thought your readers wouldn't be interested in the information, then probably you wouldn't publish the stories.
A. That's true but that's sort of the same line. As I said, we're looking at people who are culturally influential, who have put themselves up in this sense and therefore it would provide a counter point to their public face if we had stories about their private life that was different, we would put them there. If somebody was did not have that kind of public face, they were just writing a book, going to work as an actor, it would be we would have no material and therefore no desire to write about them LORD JUSTICE LEVESON Well, you could, couldn't you? Let's take Ms Rowling as an example. She might have a disgruntled employee who would be only too pleased to send you some material, but do you think that the mere fact I say "mere" without any disrespect that she is an acclaimed author in whom the public are interested, not because of the way that she conducts her life but because she's written some extremely successful books, that that would mean that you would default to publishing such a comment?
A. It depends. I mean, if the disgruntled employee had a very interesting story, which put different light on Ms Rowling, quite possibly. If it was just taking pictures of her in the street or something, we wouldn't remotely go there. I think just the fact of people in the public eye and therefore the public being interested in you means that you are you can't put yourself you can't choose when you're public and choose when you're private. Kate Middleton, she's never really uttered anything about what she buys, where she shops, and yet millions and millions of pounds of the economy are apparently dependent on people wanting to resemble Kate Middleton. There's no JK Rowling is an admirable woman, a single mother who wrote some of the most successful books in history. People will want to be like her. LORD JUSTICE LEVESON So there isn't a difference between public interest and the interest of the public? There isn't a difference?
A. It depends on the material. What would you want to write about Ms Rowling? If it's that she's behaved in public badly to somebody, that would, I would say, be in the public domain. If she's done something in her private life, which has no bearing on her public life, that's her private life. LORD JUSTICE LEVESON So sorry. MS PATRY HOSKINS I was going to follow that up. I want to be absolutely fair to you Ms Wright, in the answers you're giving, that it would depend on the material. Am I right in saying that if you were to find out that Ms Rowling was nine weeks pregnant, you wouldn't publish that?
A. No.
Q. If you were to find out that Ms Rowling I don't want to keep using her as an example, but someone like Ms Rowling was
A. If we found out, say, that she plagiarised her books, that would be information I would use. If this was something if she'd bought a new kitchen, I'm not terribly interested.
Q. What if she'd bought a new kitchen and she was rude to the staff in the shop?
A. If it was in a public place, in the shop, yeah, that's public domain.
Q. I was going to ask you a question about the code. You say you're aware of it. Does that mean you're aware of it in abstract terms or you have a copy that you read and reference when you're making decisions?
A. We have we take advice from media lawyers, who have at times given us aspects of the code that they think would be relevant to us.
Q. So you don't have it on your desk?
A. I don't read it every day. LORD JUSTICE LEVESON Sorry?
A. I don't read it every day. LORD JUSTICE LEVESON Have you read it at all?
A. From cover to cover, no, but I have read the bits where we have been told it's relevant to us. A lot of the PCC code relates to members of the public and how we never cover that kind of story. So those bits I would leave out. MS PATRY HOSKINS Is there something about the fact that you are essentially a gossip website that means that less credence is given by readers to the story that you run than, say, if you were a national newspaper?
A. I probably should ask our readers.
Q. Do you think they take what you say with a pinch of salt?
A. I would say that people look at things on the Internet slightly differently. Things are written in a tongue-in-cheek manner. You would probably take it differently than if it was written in a national newspaper.
Q. Is that because of the way that you are regulated, do you think?
A. I think that's just how as I said earlier people use the Internet in a different way.
Q. I need to touch on the message board very briefly. You've told us that registered users can use it to discuss whatever they want. Presumably they can post a message almost instantaneously, and you have limited control over what they're going to post. Do you control the message board in any way? Do you have moderators or anyone else who looks at the postings?
A. There are a group of, I would say, long-term users who would help shape the conversation on the message board. It's not moderated as such.
Q. But if someone was to point out to you, say, a defamatory comment, do you have control to the extent that you can remove it?
A. Yes. What would happen, if somebody made a complaint, we would look at it and act upon it right away. In the witness statement I think I gave examples of when we would be very happy to take off posts.
Q. I understand. I'm going to ask you now about when things go wrong. How many complaints do you receive from celebrities or those representing them each year, roughly?
A. Very few. I think we've made, to the best of my memory, five to six apologies, so that would be like one every two years.
Q. Do they usually come from celebrities who are not happy with the stories you've written in the newsletter or are they complaints about the message board?
A. Probably more I would have to check, but probably more on the newsletter than the message board.
Q. I understand. Can we turn to tab 2, please, in the bundle. There's a short report there dated 17 March 2008, which is headed: "Max Beesley wins apology from Popbitch. Popbitch agrees to its first ever statement in open court." I don't want to relate the details of this back publicly, but it's clear from this report that following a story that you published about Mr Beesley in the Popbitch newsletter, he contacted you to point out that the story was incorrect. This led to a successful libel action and you paid substantial damages to Mr Beesley and had to carry an apology to Mr Beesley. Is that an accurate summary of what happened?
A. It is, yes.
Q. Can you tell me what went wrong on that particular occasion and whether you have ever had to pay damages since then to any other celebrity?
A. This was a story that appeared to come from two very good sources and I wrote it in good faith, but I made a misjudgment and I have to hold my hands up and say that on this occasion this was wrong. But, no, since there there hasn't been anything.
Q. Did you learn anything from that particular experience?
A. Yeah, you learn not to get things wrong. I think you also learn the value of negotiation and mediation with anybody that makes a complaint as speedily as you can.
Q. Can I ask you about paragraph 30 of your statement, please. You say this: "Some newspapers have tried to use Popbitch to post stories that they wouldn't do themselves so that they can quote them as being on the Internet and therefore they can publish as in the public domain. I have tried to avoid Popbitch being used for this purpose." Can I ask you a little bit about that? First of all, "some newspapers", do you mean let me find a fair way of putting it. Do you mean tabloid newspapers, broadsheet newspapers or both?
A. I mean both.
Q. I'm not going to ask you to give me specific examples unless you want to, but what's your understanding of why they come to you and try to persuade you to publish a story, despite the fact that they themselves have chosen not to? Is it to pass on litigation risk? Presumably they have to ask themselves the same questions as you about privacy and public interest. Why do they do this?
A. From the stories involved, I'm not sure it would be a litigation risk, but perhaps they have commercial considerations in newspapers, the subject matter might be something that their editor would not would be worried about. Maybe it's politically difficult for them, and therefore if something is out there on the Internet and said to be in the public domain, they could then quote that and write the story.
Q. Do I understand your answer to mean that they may not say the story is about a particular politician, they don't want to offend that particular politician, or they may have a commercial reason for not wanting to offend someone, therefore they would ask you to publish it so they can say "It wasn't my fault, it was already out there"; is that it in a nutshell?
A. You wouldn't be far wrong.
Q. How often does this happen?
A. It hasn't happened often and not for some time. I think now there are very easy ways for people to get stories on the Internet through social media.
Q. Right. When you said that you've tried to avoid Popbitch being used for these purposes, does that mean you generally say no to such requests?
A. Yes.
Q. What if the information is really interesting and you did want to publish it? Would you still say no?
A. That hasn't yet happened.
Q. Now, the thorny issue of regulation.
A. Mm-hm.
Q. Obviously you're not members of the PCC. You do run this website as a business, though?
A. Mm-hm.
Q. You do publish information, you accept all of that?
A. Mm-hm.
Q. Perhaps I can guess the answer to this, but I want to ask whether you think sites like yours ought to be regulated other than just by having your own rules and procedures in place, but should be regulated in the same way as other outlets that publish information, such as newspapers, magazines and so on, and if not, why not?
A. Being an Internet publisher is different. We do publish in the UK, but we publish around the world, we have servers around the world, and we try and comply with local law. And therefore the same regulation for magazines and newspapers would probably be it may or may not be useful for us. In the future, whatever the Inquiry proposes I think we would look at very carefully to see whether we thought it was something that we thought would be useful for us to sign up to.
Q. Have you heard any of the proposals that have been floated during the course of this Inquiry?
A. I've been watching some of the Inquiry, but if you would
Q. Have you noted anything that concerns you about some of the proposals that have been floated?
A. I've been watching it more for the press information, I think.
Q. I understand. LORD JUSTICE LEVESON Let me give you an insight into questions I've been asking, not conclusions I've reached. But before I do, would it be fair to say that the underlying ethos of your business is rather different from that which you might think from the second part of its name? There was an article in the Independent, which quoted you and said: "We've been happy to prick the pomposity of some of the big stars over the years, but it was always meant to be done with love. Other sites are more cynical. If you don't love the world of celebrity and pop culture in some way, it's very easy to be nasty about it." Therefore would it be fair to say that what you're doing is very gently to poke a bit of fun at people and not to try and make statements or invade them in any way?
A. That would be our attempt. That's what we're aiming for. LORD JUSTICE LEVESON I understand. And for that reason it may be that where you don't necessarily get things right, that doesn't mean to say that the person affected doesn't have a sense of humour and can live with it, which may be the difference. I'm not saying it is, I don't know. But if I just test it with a slightly different story, I rather gather from what you've said, but tell me if you agree with me, that the mere fact that somebody was a Premier League footballer, not a particularly famous one, but he played in the Premier League, wouldn't necessarily mean that if you learnt that he was having an affair, you would put it in your article?
A. Yes. LORD JUSTICE LEVESON Because there's nothing funny about that.
A. "Man has affair" is not necessarily a big story. LORD JUSTICE LEVESON Yes. But some lighter story might get in, not because it really did reveal some deep hypocrisy but because it just provides a slightly different reflection, a lighter reflection?
A. Yes. LORD JUSTICE LEVESON Would that be fair? So when you talk about hypocrisy, we've used that word in a very, very clear, pure sense. You're using it in a slightly lighter sense?
A. That is largely true, but if the story was "Footballer who had built his whole personal brand on being married but was having an affair", that would be a story. "Footballer has affair" wouldn't be a story. LORD JUSTICE LEVESON Yes, but
A. For us. LORD JUSTICE LEVESON that gets us into the whole issue which you may have seen reflected in the decision in the case of Rio Ferdinand, which actually was fought out in this building, and the balancing exercise that judges have to do to decide whether the Article 8 rights to privacy
A. Of course. LORD JUSTICE LEVESON which bind you just as much as they bind everybody else
A. We know. LORD JUSTICE LEVESON override the Article 10 rights of freedom of expression. That's the balance.
A. Yes. LORD JUSTICE LEVESON It may be that you coming into this exercise in the way that you've described, jokes among friends, suddenly an explosion of interest in that, so more readers than some of the broadsheet publications, on the basis of the number of people you're emailing out to, hasn't required you to come up to the hard decisions I'm sure you did in relation to the libel action, that's a rude awakening that are actually forming the basis of the work of the Inquiry?
A. We have to balance the 8 and 10 just like everybody else every week, otherwise we get we had a privacy injunction against us in 2009, which was up at the Court of Appeal last year, so this does affect us greatly, but I guess what we don't normally the stories we would normally look at are not the kiss-and-tell kind of stories, which I think, to at least some degree, is where the injunction versus freedom of expression battle has been fought so far. LORD JUSTICE LEVESON Not just kiss-and-tell.
A. No. LORD JUSTICE LEVESON The trouble about life is it hits you in so many different ways you can't articulate them all.
A. It's such a grey area, that we don't where that line is we're trying to find it as well. LORD JUSTICE LEVESON That's the point. That's why I wonder whether you it's not for me to give you advice, but actually to read the code, I appreciate some of it won't touch you, but as a piece, it actually provides a window on how these issues could be solved, and that brings me to the issue that Ms Patry Hoskins was asking you about, which is how one brings everybody into a common standard. I'm not sure that there is a great difference between what you do and what newspapers do. You liken yourself to Private Eye. Private Eye is printed, you are digital. I'm not so sure I understand that there is really a difference between those two. And the question is whether it isn't sensible, and in the public interest you'll forgive me for using that word that there is a common set of standards. Now, applying it from your perspective, from your point of view, might lead to a slightly different result in a case because of the way you are going to tell a story and because of what you're trying to do, but that doesn't necessarily mean there shouldn't be a common standard, and if there should be, how one brings people in. To some extent you've identified that you'll see what I have to say and then make some decisions, unless I behave in such a way that you don't have a much of a decision to make
A. Of course. LORD JUSTICE LEVESON depending on whether anybody pays any attention to what I say, and I recognise that I will produce a report which somebody will decide to act upon or not. In the light of all that, I'd like to know whether you think that that might be helpful, and help you manoeuvre your way, rather than having to reinvent the wheel, through these difficult issues where people with willingness to take on challenges, particularly as you get larger and larger, may be more and more prepared to do so. So that's the first question. I'll carry on and then you can answer all. The second would be whether it would be valuable to have somebody, have a body, not just a lawyer, although I don't decry lawyers, perhaps not surprisingly, but somebody with experience in the field of journalism who you can pick up the phone to and ask, "This is a bit of a call, what's your view?" You won't necessarily be bound by that, but just to have that advisory, to be alert when somebody has complained and is concerned about the risk of harassment, so that you know when that's happening, so that you're aware of it, and possibly to have an arbitral system of some sort available to you if somebody wants to make a fuss, which you can resolve without having to go to extremely expensive lawyers and indulge in the sort of litigation that it's clear, from what you've said, you have experience of. So that's the sort of construct that I'm thinking about. Now, whether it's made to be binding or whether it is in some sense consensual is one of the big issues that and you will have read on the website, if you've read any of the evidence or seen it, that editor after editor is very concerned about the principle of self-regulation, and I understand why, although I don't think it means quite how you used it in your statement.
A. No. LORD JUSTICE LEVESON But the critical thing is that everybody is involved. There can't be different people shooting off in different directions, because that doesn't lend for balance, or indeed fairness in the public interest. I'm not trying to sell you something which I haven't yet formulated in my mind, but I am asking you to consider, in the light of all that I've said, what you think about those ideas, because it's obvious that because of your difficulties you've had to think about them, and doubtless for the purposes of giving evidence, which is why that paragraph about public interest appears. So that's the general idea, without committing myself to anything, and without committing you to anything.
A. Everything you say is very interesting and it could well be a very useful thing for us to sign up to. With being an Internet product, it would be just as easy for us to, I guess, be published from America or something like that, and therefore perhaps not me but a lot of people on the Internet might choose to not sign up for regulation and therefore you have your problem of people coming from different areas and publishing to the UK but not being regulatable by them. LORD JUSTICE LEVESON But you could be.
A. I could be. LORD JUSTICE LEVESON Unless you went to live in America and did it from there.
A. Yes. But it's actually I don't think it is even that on the Internet. The servers could be from America. LORD JUSTICE LEVESON You'd have to be careful about where you're publishing. Who is the publisher.
A. Of course. But all I guess something to think of is how many Internet publishers are going to think of doing this, and how many are going to take the opportunity of being, I guess, a global a potentially global enterprise and not being part of a regulatory system. LORD JUSTICE LEVESON Yes, I understand that, but if a journalist published for money in the UK, then it's not entirely obvious why any system which covers journals published in the UK shouldn't cover
A. No, I understand. And it may well prove to be that this is a very useful mechanism for us to join. But, as I said, it would have to be something that we would look at down the line. LORD JUSTICE LEVESON Or, California beckons.
A. I've heard it's nice this time of year. MS PATRY HOSKINS You've covered all my questions, so unless Ms Wright wanted to add anything, those are all my questions. LORD JUSTICE LEVESON No. I think there is a difference, and if the article in the Independent to which I've referred is right, it may be that the nastier stories which may appear in other Internet magazines which have set up since yours will cause more concern, which only serves to underline why the rules have to cover everybody, even if in 99.9 per cent of the cases none of it would touch what you are trying to do for your audience. Does that make sense?
A. It makes sense to me. I guess the ongoing issue that we have with the Internet, and you touched upon with Facebook, is as things technology is constantly evolving. Who considers themselves a journalist, who considers themselves a broadcaster, who considers themselves a blogger, the world is changing as these platforms change. How you deal with that, I guess, is yet another challenge. LORD JUSTICE LEVESON Yes. But I think that I might see there's a distinction between Facebook, where one person is communicating with their friends
A. Or, say, somebody on Twitter amasses tens of thousands of followers. LORD JUSTICE LEVESON Or Twitter, or Twitter and organisations that are in the business of selling themselves by reference to news or information. That's the difference between the pub chatter, to take the analogy that was mentioned before, and that which the state and I don't mean government, I say immediately, but the broad corpus, all of us has an interest in seeing is conducted on a level playing field. Whether that's achievable is the very centre of the Inquiry. Thank you very much indeed.
A. Thank you. MS PATRY HOSKINS Thank you. That concludes the evidence for today, sir. LORD JUSTICE LEVESON Thank you very much indeed. (4.09 pm)


Gave a statement at the hearing on 26 January 2012 (PM) ; and submitted 1 pieces of evidence
Gave a statement at the hearing on 26 January 2012 (PM) ; and submitted 2 pieces of evidence


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