Earlier this week, the world was given another example of the tech giants’ indifference — if not contempt — for what we regard as the formalities of the administration of justice.
These conventions can, even temporarily, frustrate the idea that justice must be seen to be done but they are usually vindicated. These formalities exist because of the necessary protection, the basic respect, they offer to victims and those accused of a crime before a court has reached conclusions.
These issues are in play around the murder of British backpacker Grace Millane, 22, in New Zealand. The killing moved prime minister Jacinda Ardern to offer an apology that resonated with humility and warmth: “There is this overwhelming sense of hurt and shame that this has happened in our country, a place that prides itself on our hospitality.”
Despite the impact the murder has had, a court ruled that the man suspected of the killing not be named. New Zealand’s media, from the most conservative newspapers to the most popular television stations, and even the country’s bedroom bloggers observed the ruling.
It is immaterial whether that was done because of the importance of the issue — innocent until proven guilty — or because of the eyewatering sanctions that might follow ignoring the court, or even that any trial might be jeoparidsed by speculation, the order’s objective was realised.
But then it wasn’t.
Shortly after midnight on Tuesday, Google delivered, by email, to its “what’s trending in New Zealand” followers the name of the 26-year-old accused of the murder.
The tech giant rode roughshod over an independent country’s justice system in a way that that is little short of seditious. Google followers did not even have to search for the man’s name, the Silicon Valley imperialists offered it as if it was a weather update.
When challenged the company was, again, contemptuous saying “we wouldn’t comment on specifics”. New Zealand’s minister of justice, naturally, castigated the offshore media companies that had, from beyond the reach of New Zealand’s courts, named the accused but the tech companies are so powerful that his anger will achieve little or nothing.
Unfortunately, it is not necessary to travel, virtually or otherwise, to the far side of the world to see how social media can be dangerously intrusive into the administration of justice.
A current allegation of a rape in a Dublin hotel led to an individual being named on social media even before a complaint was made. The man’s name, now widely circulated, was offered by individuals rather than any of the tech giants but the consequences are just as profound.
When challenged, Google and Facebook — private companies more powerful and richer than all but the world’s strongest countries — smirk and say they are not censors.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s recent refusal to testify at a hearing organised by seven countries frustrated with Facebook turning a blind eye to misinformation epitomises this. Climate change is, by far, the greatest challenge facing humanity but as the Millane case confirms, and as investigations in Washington may yet confirm, finding a way to control the data-grabbing giants is ever more pressing.