Privacy: Sample our intellectual buffet. Or make your own meal.

Timothy Garton Ash introduces a sample tour of the content on our site

“You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.” This famous remark by the head of Sun Microsystems in 1999 captures a great dilemma of our time. The right to freedom of expression has to be balanced against our right to privacy. Privacy is also a condition of free speech. There are a lot of things you will not say, if you think that someone is likely to be listening in – and that ‘someone’ includes the secret state, corporations and tabloid journalists.

We want to introduce you to a selection of the content we have on the site on this issue. All printable items can be downloaded as an automated PDF. Alternatively, you can simply display it live from the internet, and play video and audio. Obviously, you can pick and choose to suit your own interest, or those of the group you are working with. Note that almost all this content is available in a number of our 13 languages – and some of it in all of them. To choose your language, click on the language button at the top of the screen.


My own Introduction to the subject can be read here. This spells out many of the issues that have arisen, and explains the thinking behind our principle in more detail. Privacy is a puzzling, difficult subject. The closer you come to trying to define it, the more elusive it becomes. But we all know it when we lose it.

If you want to hear the view of one of the leading legal scholars on free speech, here is a short but magisterial essay by Eric Barendt of University College London.

Privacy and reputation

Here is an interview with Max Mosley, whom a tabloid journalist accused of taking part in a “Nazi orgy”. He makes an interesting distinction between privacy and reputation.

Or there is the case of topless photographs of the Duchess of Cambridge.

Or Dominique Strauss-Kahn being forced to walk very publicly, handcuffed and escorted by police (the ‘perp walk’).

The privacy of women attending abortion clinics, and how that should be weighed against the free speech rights of those trying to dissuade women from having an abortion, was also the issue in a recent (2014) decision of the US Supreme Court.

Privacy and national security

Of course the subject of privacy has risen to great prominence with the revelations by Edward Snowden. Jeff Howard explores the legal basis on which the US is collecting this data.

And in China…

In China critical comments can be treated as threats to the security of the state. A Chinese activist found himself in prison after his personal details were passed on to the Chinese government.

Privacy v the right to information

In India, the Nira Radia tapes controversy was somewhat different, concerning tapes that exposed high-level lobbying and influence peddling. Do you think there is a genuine public interest in the publication of those tapes?

The public interest v  ‘what interests the public’

The ‘public interest’ is not just ‘what interests the public’. The British tabloids took that as a justification to hack the phones of thousands of people, and not just celebrities. Look at this video extract from Britain’s Leveson inquiry, as it cross-examined the media mogul Rupert Murdoch.

Facebook and  Google

An equally big, perhaps even bigger, concern we have these days is all the data that Facebook and Google are holding on us.

Take a look at this fascinating discussion with the head of public policy at Facebook, Richard Allan, and Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, Oxford’s Professor of Internet Governance and Regulation at the Oxford Internet Institute and author of the book Delete.

And this one, on Facebook’s over-zealous face tagging.

Or find out more about disappearing privacy on Facebook.

Oxford Internet Institute expert Ian Brown looks at the way privacy is getting lost on Google too.

Or consider the case of Google street view in Germany.

Real  names or anonymous?

A related issue is whether people should be compelled to use their real names on Facebook and Google +. Here’s a forum on which our users have made their comments.

Do we have a right to be forgotten?

More recently, there has been a big debate, especially in Europe, about the ‘right to be forgotten’. Sebastian Huempfer, one of our FSD Team members, presents a case for a right to be forgotten and explains why it is not so easy to be forgotten by Google.

It is interesting that Germany is one of the countries most exercised by this subject. It has a remarkable legal position, going back to the 1970s, which suggests that even murderers have the right to be forgotten.

What do you think? Should there be a right to be forgotten, or just a more limited right to determine what private information of yours goes up for how long?


If you wanted to try a structured debate in this area, our partners at lay out these two:

This House would allow celebrities to switch off the limelight”.

And also, “This House believes that rumors about politicians should not be reported

We hope you find this useful and interesting. Do please give us your feedback, either by posting comments on the site or by emailing

Enjoy your own debate.

Timothy Garton Ash, on behalf of the Free Speech Debate team.

Read more:

Leave a comment in any language


Swipe left to browse all of the highlights.

Free Speech Debate is a research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Antony's College in the University of Oxford.

The University of Oxford