Should gossip swapped on social networking sites be subject to the same kind of scrutiny as material published in a newspaper? It's a question that has bedeviled Internet users and officials across the world, and it's one the judge at the center of the inquiry into British media ethics has been struggling with.
At a Thursday hearing which heard testimony from executives at Google and Facebook, Lord Justice Brian Leveson seemed to come down on the “there-is-a-difference” side of the argument.
“There's a distinction between Facebook, where one person is communicating with their friends … or Twitter, and organizations that are in the business of selling themselves by reference to news or information,” he said at the end of the session.
“That's the difference between the pub chatter … and that which … all of us has an interest in seeing is conducted on a level playing field.”
Leveson's comments were offhand, and the judge has repeatedly warned journalists against reading too much into his remarks. But Leveson has the potential to recommend wide-ranging changes to Britain's media industry and even throwaway comments are being parsed closely by journalists.
The inquiry was set up in the wake of Britain's phone hacking scandal and could recommend that the country's press watchdog, which proved embarrassingly incapable of tackling the issue, be reinforced, reformed or replaced.
The inquiry has also considered extending journalistic oversight more aggressively across the Internet, with Leveson saying earlier Thursday that “the rules have to cover everybody.”
But one of Leveson's witnesses, blogger Camilla Wright, suggested the judge might find it hard to propose regulating bloggers who could just decide to jump to servers in the U.S. if British rules proved too onerous.
In any case, Wright said, it was difficult to decide who was a journalist in the Internet age.
“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.”