Privacy cases in the UK
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Explaining the judgement in the case of GYH v Persons Unknown
Being a sex worker and advertising yourself as such on the internet does not mean that you have forfeited your right to private life, says judge as Cohen Davis obtains a High Court privacy injunction for a client who works as an escort
The case of GYH V Persons Unknown is perhaps one of the most important privacy cases in the UK. The client, who advertised herself as an escort to rich clients hadn’t lost her right to keep information in relation to her sexuality private. Cohen Davis brought the proceedings and an application for a privacy injunction on behalf of our client, who was also granted by the High Court a right to anonymity. She is only known as GYH. Our privacy lawyers took the legal proceedings against "persons unknown" as, despite extensive efforts, we were unable to prove on balance of probabilities the identity of our client’s harasser. In yet another ground-breaking case, Cohen Davis’ team has obtained one of our most important judgements on behalf of a sex worker to protect her identity, and to protect her from harassment on the internet.
The judgement in the case of GYH v Persons Unknown  EWHC 212 (QB) is significant, perhaps more than many other privacy cases in the UK, for differnet reasons. It creates separation from ones business activities to one’s private life.
The judgment states that publication of an individual’s sexual orientation on the internet is unlawful, that disclosure of allegations that an individual is carrying an infectious disease is unlawful unless there is real proof to substantiate the claim, it protects rights of people who work in the sex industry and it separates between an individual’s private life and their working life so far as internet publications are concerned even if on occasions the two might overlap. Perhaps most importantly, the cases decides that individuals who provide personal services, including sexual and escort services, do not necessarily have to compromise their right to private life, even if they advertise some aspects of their private life on the internet to support their commercial activities.
The case of GYH v Persons Unknown, is a unique case of many other privacy cases in the UK in that that it involved a transgender sex worker who had both a mix of true and false information published about her on the internet on sex-workers’ review websites. Some of the information published about the sex worker was private. For example, that she had HIV, that she was not using condoms whilst seeing her clients and that she had undergone a sex change. It is not often that sex workers take their case to the high court, certainly not for breach of their right to private life
In relation to the true private information, it was concluded the publication was unlawful. But more interestingly, in relation to the false information that was posted about her on the internet, the judge agreed that there was no public interest in having false information about someone published online, even if that information directly relates to the services the person provides to the public. Therefore, the posting of false private information about her was also considered unlawful.
In relation to posts online alleging that someone who provides escort services, practised unsafe sex and had contracted HIV/Aids, yet continued to work, there was no justification of allowing such posts to be publicised as long as the information was untrue. The judge added: "There is no public interest in the distribution of false information of this kind, nor is it reasonable to publish false allegations to this effect. On the contrary."
Sometimes publication of private information on the internet is done in order to cause harassment, alarm and distress to the victim. In this case, GYH became the subject of a campaign of harassment, which included, among other things, the tagging of dozens of pornographic videos with her name. The harassing posts also included references to her sexuality, to her sexual preferences as well as false claims that she was having unprotected sex. These are private matters even in relation to someone who is a sex worker.
This followed by further false allegations that she was an HIV/Aids positive. Again, the court agreed that matters concerning one’s health are private matters unless there was a clear public interest in those matters being made public. At the same time, the publication was also a form of harassment. There was a campaign of harassment carried out by internet trolls on online review websites, they did whatever they could to unsettle her and as a result they caused her harassment, alarm and distress. Mr Justice Warby, sitting at the London High Court said that a privacy injunction was "amply justified" to restrain the continued harassment against GYH.
For centuries, sex workers in the UK have been excluded from the benefits of many of the legal rights that other individuals often take for granted. Particularly, sex workers, the majority of whom are women, have largely been excluded from the right to have crimes committed against them investigated by the police. They have rarely been able to afford taking cases to the High Court and generally speaking, have been suffering, individually and as a group, from low self-esteem and lack of confidence to see themselves as equal before the law. The clear message that was sent by the court in the case of GYH was that those individuals who provide sexual services are not excluded from access to justice.
Like anyone else, sex workers have a right to have their privacy protected, regardless of the fact that they might be advertising themselves as sex worker. Although sex workers who advertised their services online might place some private information in the public domain, to which they may have no reasonable expectation of privacy, there is no question of a person waiving her right to privacy in a particular zone of her private life merely by publicising some private information herself. In other words, just because someone advertises themselves as sex workers, does not mean that every aspect of their sexuality or sexual activity or health can be published without their consent You can read the full judgment in the privacy injunction case of GYH v PERSONS UNKNOWN here.
Each year Cohen Davis handles dozens of cases involving sex workers harassment and breach of privacy of sex workers. The number of our clients who belong to this group is constantly increasing. Sex workers in the UK form part of a particularly vulnerable group of individuals.
The popularity of the internet in recent years has resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of individuals who provide sexual services online and offline. This includes actresses, models, escorts, and prostitutes. There is also a growing number of individuals who take unfair advantage of vulnerable sex workers.