What is 'publicly available to a significant extent'?

with 3 comments

Today’s PCC ruling against JK Rowling’s privacy complaint raises intriguing questions about what constitutes the ‘public domain’ and what the responsibilities of the press are once someone is in it.

Rowling had complained that pieces in the Daily Mirror, the Daily Record and the Mail on Sunday that identified the location of her home in Perthshire had violated her privacy. The PCC ruled that, since the information was ‘already publicly available to a significant extent’, the papers had a right to publish.

So what does it mean to be ‘publicly available to a considerable extent’? Well, if you do a Google search on JK Rowling’s Scottish house you get, half way down the first page, Rowling’s entry in Wikipedia. Within this entry there are details of the name of her house, the banks of the river on which it sits, and the nearest town. There is also a separate entry on the house itself (with more helpful links).

Given Wikipedia’s significant profile and audience this almost certainly qualifies as being ‘publicly available to a significant extent’ (Rowling’s entry has been viewed in May 2008, according to an unofficial Wikipedia stats site, 84,000 times). Indeed the PCC even references the Wikipedia entry in its adjudication: ‘it [Rowling's home] also appeared in considerable detail on the internet, including on the Wikipedia website, where the complainant’s home even had its own entry as a dwelling of some historical note’.

But isn’t there a problem here? What if I’m a journalist writing an article about a well-known person and want to publish their address. Right now it’s only on the land registry which doesn’t count as being ‘publicly available to a significant extent’. So I go to Wikipedia, add their address to the entry (or create an entry if they don’t yet have one), and hey presto! It’s now significantly publicly available.

Hmmm… doesn’t this make the whole definition of ‘publicly available to a significant extent’ slightly farcical? And what other private information does this apply to? Oh, and where else can someone publish that information for it to count as ‘publicly available to a significant extent’? MySpace, Facebook, a MyTelegraph blog, a Comment is Free comment?

Written by Martin Moore

June 26th, 2008 at 3:40 pm

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3 Responses to 'What is 'publicly available to a significant extent'?'

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  1. Don’t forget that Wikipedia doesn’t allow primary research, so the entry cites this 2001 article by The Scotsman as the original source of the information about her home address. I guess the court didn’t look at the footnotes…

    Martin Belam

    27 Jun 08 at 8:49 am

  2. Thank you Martin. You don’t happen to know if there was a complaint about the piece in the Scotsman? In which case did the PCC make a ruling back then?

    Martin Moore

    27 Jun 08 at 12:34 pm

  3. The judgement refers to 2005 complaint by Rowling against the Daily Mirror. Of course, Google has been displaying satellite photos of all our homes now for quite a while…

    Adrian Monck

    27 Jun 08 at 2:41 pm

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