Conflict and Balanced Protection of Freedom of Expression and Privacy

Protesters demonstrate outside the annual general meeting of BSkyB to call for James Murdoch to stand down as chairman on November 29, 2011 in London, England. The protests follow News International’s phone hacking scandal. (Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images)


Privacy and freedom of expression are among the most important values in modern society. These two rights are essential for a free and democratic society because they allow people to participate in public discussions and make informed decisions about important values, such as national security or public safety (Barendt, 2012). The balance between privacy and freedom of expression in the digital age is a complex issue, as digital technologies can both increase the level of participation in freedom of expression and increase the likelihood of personal privacy violations. This paper will probe into the responsibilities, implications, and boundaries of personal privacy and freedom of speech in current society, assess the equilibrium between the two privileges, summarize the balancing problems and their solutions by examining certain contentious cases, and predict some potential progressions.


The balance between privacy and freedom of expression is a complex issue that has been debated for many years. On the one hand, freedom of expression is a fundamental right that allows individuals to express their opinions and ideas without fear of censorship or retaliation. On the other hand, privacy is also an important right that allows individuals to control their personal information and protect themselves from unwanted intrusions (British Journalism Review, 2003).

Jaiswal (2021) mentions that The ability to express one’s opinion freely and the right to keep certain information private are imperative for building an open and democratic society and are integral for the progress of society and for individuals to be able to benefit from their other human rights and freedoms. In the digital age, the emergence of social media and online platforms has provided people with a wider space for freedom of expression, allowing them to share ideas and opinions with people around the globe. However, it has also made the internet a conduit for gossip, disinformation, and hate speech that can have serious negative effects on individuals and society. Individuals’ privacy is threatened as never before, for example, the collection, storage, use, and sharing of personal data can be misused, leading to problems such as personal information leakage and identity theft.

The conflict between privacy and freedom of expression

Privacy and freedom of expression often go hand-in-hand, however, when privacy policies are put in place to stop the unauthorized sharing of personal data, this can create a conflict (Jaiswal, 2021). Barendt (2012) acknowledges that sometimes freedom of expression and privacy may be in opposition to one another, though he still recognizes the importance of both. Although Barendt (2012) argues that the relationship between the two is symbiotic and that freedom of expression and privacy are closely related. However, he also acknowledges that sometimes the two may be in conflict with each other. For example, a person’s privacy may be violated by the release of private information, even if that information is true and of public interest.

Ⅰ. Social Website

Social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube often involve a conflict between privacy and freedom of expression. On the one hand, these social media platforms need to protect users’ privacy rights, including protecting their personal information and private data. To reach the standards of freedom of expression, these platforms must also be willing to reveal certain information and content to users as per their needs. On these platforms, for the purpose of making sure their speech is valid, people must provide details such as their names, ages, genders, and other information.

In particular, in journalism, where journalists have the right to report and reveal facts, the news may need to reveal some personal information in order to publish comments and opinions. This may cause harm to those individuals, for example by affecting their reputation, generating media attention, or even causing problems with physical safety. If a person’s personal information is revealed in order to expose any kind of illegal activity such as corruption, then this could be seen as a justified act of disclosure.

II. Online marketplace

By harvesting users’ personal information, social media companies can create advertisements that target their interests, as well as adjust the filtering and sorting of information to sway their thoughts and behaviors (Suzor, 2019). For instance, if there are goods and services which require users to share personal information, merchants may need to collect and use this information in order to provide tailored services and product suggestions. However, users’ personal information also involves the issue of privacy, which can be violated if merchants misuse users’ personal information.

III. Search engines

Google is an engine that has the capability to decide which websites will show up on its search results page (Suzor, 2019). In order to provide outcomes that are both more precise and personalized, it must collect and analyze data such as users’ search history, geographic location, IP address, and device information. Search engines also need to strike a balance between freedom of expression and compliance with laws and regulations. For example, certain countries or regions may require search engines to block certain content in order to comply with local laws and regulations. Nonetheless, this could potentially create challenges for freedom of expression.

Balance in different contexts

Barendt (2012) proposes that the two interests should be balanced, with the amount of protection each right receives dependent on the conditions of the particular case. We must determine the balance between freedom of expression and privacy on an individual basis, considering each particular context and the conflicting interests involved.

Ⅰ. Policies

Some countries may use counter-terrorism or crime-fighting as a pretext to over-surveil citizens, violate their privacy rights, or use restrictions on freedom of expression to limit citizens’ criticism and oversight of government. Governments need to make a trade-off between protecting individual rights and the public interest of society. Barendt (2012) suggests that the trade-off between free speech and privacy may not be the same in situations involving hate speech or political expression as it is in cases concerning personal information or private matters. However, finding a balance between freedom of speech and privacy might not be sufficient to address certain issues. Disinformation and hate speech circulated through social media platforms can pose a significant risk to the public interest and civil rights, but taking action against them may jeopardize both free speech and privacy rights.

II. Culture

Attitudes toward freedom of expression and privacy may differ between cultures. Both aspects may be focused on separately due to the possible conflict between traditional and modern values. In some Asian countries, the authority of the family and community often takes precedence over individual freedoms and rights. This means that individuals may need to take responsibility in maintaining the image and reputation of the family and community, and may even need to sacrifice personal privacy and freedom. In such cases, freedom of expression may be limited because the individual’s speech may affect the image and reputation of the family and community. Cultural diversity is weighed against the need to ensure that both rights are protected.

Case Study

According to Nyst’s article (2008), here is a case about the Edison Chen photo scandal, also known as the “Hong Kong sex photo scandal”. Singer Edison Chen was leaked several sexually explicit photos of himself and several female celebrities online and quickly went viral. The photos were shared online without the person’s consent, and once the photos were released, it was impossible to fully control their distribution. This not only violated the privacy rights of the individuals involved, but also had a profound impact on their personal and professional lives. Internet users are scrambling to make relevant statements about the incident, with the underlying question of whether freedom of speech can be used to hide personal attacks against those involved. Internet users are scrambling to make relevant statements in the incident, not the least of which is the issue of using freedom of speech as a shield for personal attacks on those involved. It raises questions about the Internet’s ability to disseminate private information and the blurred boundaries of celebrity privacy in the digital age.

People would question the role of Internet platforms and social media in protecting the privacy of individuals. From the perspective of privacy, the person’s right to privacy has been violated and their private information has been illegally accessed and made public, which has had a serious impact on their personal safety, personal image and relationships and has undermined their legitimate rights and interests. The protection of the right to privacy should be a fundamental right, not a by-product of the right to freedom. From the perspective of freedom of expression, on the one hand, society’s condemnation and criticism of these photos can be seen as a manifestation of freedom of expression. People can express their views and criticize and condemn such bad behavior, which is precisely the right granted by freedom of expression. On the other hand, the people who leaked these photos may have also resorted to the name of freedom of speech, but this practice also undermines the privacy rights of Edison Chen and the other famous people involved. The public exposure of their private photos is undoubtedly an invasion of their privacy. In this case, the balance between freedom of speech and the right to privacy has also been broken.

But whose freedom is greater? Is it the freedom of the person to take photos and have promiscuous sex, or is it the freedom of the website users to upload photos and post comments? Freedom here is translated into a confrontation between individual privacy and freedom of expression. The two are neither right nor wrong, nor is it possible to simply determine which right takes precedence, but they are equally protected as fundamental constitutional rights in China. Nonetheless, it is understood that with the exception of certain unavoidable conditions that cannot be changed, neither gender, ethnicity, religion, or any similar characteristic should be the basis for unequal treatment or scant regard for the rights of others. In the most basic human rights, all people should be “equal” before the law.

When balancing the right to privacy and freedom of expression, the relationship and weight between the two need to be considered. In this incident, the privacy rights of the people involved should be protected, while also safeguarding the basic right to freedom of expression. If the right to privacy and freedom of expression are indiscriminately equated, it will cause serious damage to the public interest and civil rights.

In addition, in the sex photo scandal, some media platforms have been accused of many things, and many people believe that online media also constitutes an infringement of rights. However, online media cannot be considered as lacking in social responsibility when it comes to news reporting. Internet media has played a great role in freedom of expression and news dissemination, and our society should not be too closed, not to mention regressive. Too harsh on the network media or even blocked, the damage can only be the hard-won freedom of expression on the Internet. A better development would be for people to participate in and monitor the rules and decisions of media platforms to ensure that their content is in line with public values, rather than a blanket dismissal (Suzor, 2019).


Having considered the discussion above, in order to maintain the equilibrium between the right to privacy and freedom of expression, appropriate laws and policies are required to protect the privacy of individuals while allowing for the freedom of expression to be exercised. These policies and laws should be based on transparency, fairness and enforceability to ensure that freedom of expression, consistent with the law, does not compromise the privacy rights of others. The right to privacy in the digital age needs to be redefined and strengthened to address the threats of digital surveillance and data breaches (Karppinen, 2017). To better protect the privacy of users, digital companies need to take additional steps, like improving data security, offering more privacy choices, and adhering to the principles of transparency and fairness when handling data.

In conclusion, balancing the relationship between privacy and freedom of expression requires efforts that include governments, businesses and individuals (Karppinen, 2017), to ensure that both individual privacy and public freedom of expression are adequately protected.

Reference List

Barendt, E. (2012, January 27). Freedom of speech and privacy. Free Speech Debate. Retrieved April 9, 2023, from

British Journalism Review (2003). How do we balance privacy with freedom? EDITORIAL, 14(1), 3-6.

Flew, Terry (2021) Regulating Platforms. Cambridge: Polity, pp. 72-79.

Goggin, G., Vromen, A., Weatherall, K., Martin, F., Webb, A., Sunman, L., Bailo, F. (2017) Executive Summary and Digital Rights: What are they and why do they matter now? In Digital Rights in Australia. Sydney: University of Sydney.

Jaiswal, S. (2021, November 4). The line between right to privacy and freedom of speech in the digital media. Ipleaders. Retrieved April 9, 2023, from

Karppinen, K. (2017) Human rights and the digital. In Routledge Companion to Media and Human Rights.  In H. Tumber & S. Waisbord (eds) Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge pp 95-103.

Nyst, C. (2018, February 2). Two sides of the same coin – the right to privacy and freedom of expression. Privacyinternational. Retrieved April 9, 2023, from

Pomfret, J. (2008, February 4). Edison Chen’s Sex Photo Scandal. Retrieved April 10, 2023, from

Suzor, Nicolas P. 2019. ‘Who Makes the Rules?’. In Lawless: the secret rules that govern our lives. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. pp. 10-24.

侯尚鹏 (2021, June 11). 网络之下言论自由权与隐私权的冲突问题及协调措施. 法制与社会. Retrieved April 10, 2023, from

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