UK

Leveson Inquiry hears data laws 'breached every day'

Data protection laws covering illegally obtaining or using personal information are being breached every day, the Leveson Inquiry has heard.

UK information commissioner Christopher Graham said efforts to deal with this "real challenge" were being frustrated by the press.

But he added he had not seen evidence of breaches by the press since 2006.

He said data abuses were not just about the press but NHS workers, bank clerks and private investigators.

Also on Thursday, David-John Collins, a vice-president of Google, told the inquiry that it took privacy "extremely seriously".

'High salience'

Giving evidence to the inquiry, Mr Graham said he had not seen evidence of data protection breaches by the press since 2006.

He said there were ongoing investigations into private investigators but he was unable to give more information.

Mr Graham said that when he took over as commissioner in June 2009, he had been aware there was a "sword of Damocles" hanging over the press if there was any repetition of the behaviour that had been uncovered by Operation Motorman.

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Media captionInformation commissioner Christopher Graham: "A regulator has got to intervene on the basis of evidence."

Operation Motorman was an inquiry by the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) into allegations of offences under the Data Protection Act by the British press.

Mr Graham said he believed his office would have been informed if there had been new examples of breaches of the data protection laws - particularly Section 55 which refers to illegally obtaining or using personal information.

He told the inquiry: "This is an issue of such high salience, many investigative journalists working in the area, great rivalry between newspaper groups, lots of campaigners, that if there was evidence of further breaches of Section 55 by the press, it would have been drawn to my attention and it hasn't been.

"But I must stress that that doesn't mean Section 55 isn't being breached. It's being breached every day".

'Real challenge'

Mr Graham said the ICO was facing a problem of not being able to get the courts and society to take personal information going missing from databases seriously.

He said: "I'm faced by the press, who say they ain't misbehaving but they are flatly opposed, or have been opposed, to the introduction of more effective penalty for these offences because they say it would have a chilling effect on investigative journalism."

He said he would not be in favour of anything that would have that effect on journalism but added: "It isn't just about the press, it's about NHS workers, it's about private investigators, it's about bank clerks.

"And it's frustrating not to be able to deal with that real challenge, which the Information Commissioner's Office is concerned to deal with, because we're constantly met by the press saying 'this is terrible, the sky is falling, the sky is falling'."

Mr Graham said self-regulation of the press would survive only if it was credible, and that it was a huge mistake to have serving editors on the Press Complaints Commission (PCC).

'Legal process'

Mr Collins was asked about an article that quoted Google's former chief executive, Eric Schmidt, of saying "only miscreants worry about net privacy".

Mr Collins told the inquiry that that was not representative of the internet search engine's privacy principles, which it took "extremely seriously".

Daphne Keller, associate general counsel for Google, said it had a legal team to look at potential cases of breaches of UK defamation law.

Ms Keller told the inquiry that Google had removed hundreds of URLs in relation to the Max Mosley privacy case.

Mr Collins said Google would comply with UK law in relation to future press regulation.

He said: "For removing results from our search index, it's much better for those users if those judgements have been made by a court or a legal process. The result is not just handed to a search engine but handed to the webmaster and other entry points to the web."

Richard Allan, a director of social networking site Facebook, was asked about its approach to privacy.

Mr Allan told the inquiry that Facebook's "raison d'etre" was to give people the ability to share information but also to give them control over what information they shared.

"Privacy is a notion at the heart of what we're trying to do," he said.

Mr Allan said Facebook aimed to turn around complaints of privacy or defamation from the UK within 24 to 48 hours.

Meanwhile, Jonathan Caplan QC, counsel for Associated Newspapers, which publishes the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday, confirmed that it would not seek to appeal against a High Court ruling last week that some journalists can remain anonymous when giving evidence to the inquiry.

The Leveson Inquiry was set up by Prime Minister David Cameron in July 2011 amid new revelations of phone hacking at the now-defunct News of the World.

The first phase is examining the practices and ethics of the press. A second phase of the inquiry, after a police investigation into phone hacking at the News of the World is complete, will focus on unlawful conduct by the press and the police's initial hacking investigation.

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