Lord King is author of amendments tabled last week to the Counter Terrorism and Security Bill. They would have granted the government surveillance powers without proper checks and balances. Arguing in favour of the changes, Lord King admitted he did not use social media and did not understand apps like WhatsApp or SnapChat. Continue reading Dear Lord King: Ludditry is not cool, it’s dangerous→
We’re 100 days out from the election, and the Sun has launched a manifesto – a #Sunifesto – for Britain.
Their last bullet point is about free speech. Incredibly, this is not about press regulation, the harmonisation of our libel laws, extremism ‘banning’ orders or police abuse of RIPA to track down whistleblowers. This is odd because The Sun is at the heart of all these issues.
Instead, it’s about the dangers of Twitter mobs.
The paper complains about the police “wrongly” acting against those who have caused offence. “Unless it’s illegal, it’s NOT police business”.
The problem with this is that causing offence is illegal. Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 expressly criminalises ‘grossly offensive’ messages. And of course, what constitutes gross offence is in the eye of the beholder. So the highly subjective test in the law enables and encourages abuse.
The Sun blames political correctness for this and implores us to #forgawsakegrowapair. But it’s not political correctness that causes the mischief here. The principle of free speech permits not only the right to offend, but the right to say that you have been offended, even on Twitter. For many people it takes courage to speak out and tell a powerful newspaper columnist that they’re being crass and prejudiced. For many, politically correct fury is indeed “growing a pair” (we’ll ignore the sexist overtones of that phrase for now).
Appallingly, people in the UK are given prison sentences for making tasteless comments online. The Sun claims to stand up for Free Speech, but (as is perhaps inevitable, given the name of the paper) it’s a fair weather friend. Where was the Sun when Robert Riley and Jake Newsome were jailed for unpleasant social media postings?
For social media, the free speech policy must be reform of s.127. Free speech cannot just be for the newspapers. It must be for the Tweeters, too.
Do you remember the so-called scandal earlier this month, when it was revealed that UCAS (the charitable company that administers university applications and admissions) was selling on students’ contact details to advertisers? Charlotte Sexauer of AsianCorrespondent.com delved deeper into the story, and found that there may be less to the controversy than we first assumed:
Essentially, therefore, it would appear as though what UCAS is doing is the same as any other online business – namely, asking students’ permission to send them emails for products that are likely to appeal to them.
I spoke to Charlotte about the issue and my comments were included in her article. Here I am, riffing on the conceptual difference between the personal information we choose to share on Facebook, and the data that companies hold on us:
The fact that people post reams of data to Facebook is often given as an excuse for companies trading in our personal data, our online activity and our commercial activity,” he says. “But there’s a huge conceptual difference between data we can control and delete, and data stored in a computer record we do not have access to. Opting out of Facebook may be socially difficult, but anyone can do it in a matter of moments. Likewise, opting out of the Nectar Card programme is as simple as cutting the purple card in half. But opting out of a database that you do not even know you are on is a much harder proposition.
A little while back, the Independent ran a feature on ‘the selfie’, that genre of modern self-portrait taken with a smart phone. Hilary and Chelsea Clinton had published a selfie, which signalled the form’s crossover from youth culture to the mainstream.
When we discuss social media, the usual insight is that it allows people (whether they are public figures like Hilary Clinton or Rhianna, or just ordinary members of the public) to communicate without having to go through the established media corporations. But I think the great significance of social media is that the traditional media outlets have completely co-opted it into their coverage. The mainstream media’s tracking of Edward Snowden’s escape from Hong Kong to Russia was powered by Twitter. Sports reporters quote Tweets from players and managers to gain insights into their state of mind or the state of their transfer deal.
Here’s an audio recording of my remarks at the ORGcon panel ‘The right to be offensive: free speech online’.
I saw this event as an opportunity to develop the discussion on offence and free speech that I had at the Liberty AGM panel last month. There, the discussion about offensive words centred around ideas of blasphemy and obscenity, and the conclusion seemed to be ‘people need to have thicker skins.’ When it comes to the criticism and satire of religion or public figures, I agree with this sentiment. But it is a weak and incomplete response to the hate speech and bullying. An article by Helen Lewis at theNew Statesman was fresh in my mind – a nasty culture of rape threats and racism seems to be evolving, and it is driving people offline. This is also a free expression issue.
So free speech advocates are faced with a challenge. If we campaign to esnure that offensive comments are legal and permitted in public and quasi-public fora like Twitter and Facebook, what do we do about the hate speech? What do we do about the racist and sexist comments that discourage minority voices from participating in the discussion? To expect these people to get a thicker skin and just shrug it off is a privileged attitude that prioritises the free speech of one group over another.
Human rights campaigners must come up with a solution that addresses hateful comments, but without recourse to law. There may be technical solutions or behavioural remedies we can use to discourage the rape-threats and the sexism and the racism. If liberal defenders of a free internet to do not address this problem, then populist politicians will seize the initiative and burden us with authoritarian speech laws.
Is online vigilantism the answer? Can we not use our own right to free speech to shame the people posting the ugly comments? Fellow pannellist David Allen Green was wary of ‘Twitter storms’, saying that they often result in someone in the storm calling the police. He said that are unfocused and has previously likened them to an Orwellian Two-Minute Hate. But perhaps a more surgical form of online counter-speech is the answer? What would that look like, I wonder?
Twitter sometimes combines the Two Minute Hate and Lord of the Flies in a way neither Orwell nor Golding would have been surprised at.
I have become an avid listener of the Overthinking It podcast. It is a few guys, chatting via Skype from disparate locations in the USA, shooting the breeze about popular culture.
A recent episode (an atypical two-hander between Matthew Wrather and Peter Fenzel) is called ‘Schroedinger’s Instagram’, and discusses in depth the pop-cultural implications of the recent purchase of Instagram by Facebook. In doing so, they cruise by many of the obsessions and diversions of this blog.
The rise of the ‘selfies‘ (i.e. a digital self-portrait).
Wrather and Fenzel talk a little about party photos and holiday snaps. The way in which people ‘pose’ for ostensibly candid photos has always fascinated me. I know people who make a peace ‘V’ with their fingers, or open their mouths as if the excitement of the moment has overcome them… but then they lapse into a rather glum repose once the flash has fired. They are consciously creating an inaccurate facade for Facebook. Continue reading Overthinking Facebook and Instagram→
The lastest person to be prosecuted forgiving offence on social media is eighteen year old Sam Busby, from Worcester. Like Matthew Woods, he posted jokes about missing schoolgirl April Jones on Facebook.
I admit I have bouts of sentiment for the printed page. In general, however, I allow my head to rule my heart in thse matters. The China Mieville quote I posted a few days ago persuades me that we don’t really need to fetishize print.
The media have refrained from reporting Wood’s comments. This is a good thing. The joke assumes the guilt of the person accused of April Jones’ murder, so reporting it would prejudice a trial. Media restraint also minimises any distress to April’s family, and denies the attention-seeker further opportunities to provoke.
However… The only reason this Woods has received any attention in the first place was because he has been hauled before a magistrate! Had he not been arrested and charged, the comment would have been lost in the obscurity of his Facebook timeline after a couple of days. The comment obviously violates Facebook Terms & Conditions, so he might have been banned from using the site. We might describe that as a contractual matter, not criminal. And he might have lost a lot of friends (both in the real sense and the Facebook sense). But this is a social sanction, not criminal. Continue reading Another Misguided Facebook Conviction→
Reading this article about the genesis and project management of Google+, a new social network, reminded me of the Through A Web Darkly event I attended at Demos last month. They’ve uploaded a helpful video outlining the main theme of the event – the idea that the ‘personalisation’ of the web might be a problem.
Its interesting that, as we move into an era where all the HTML code on our websites have been crafted for you us by the social networking companies, we are are nevertheless still the creators, or maybe the curators, of our online world. As Tom Chatfield put it (paraphrasing Alexis Madrigal) “Twitter is a human recommendation engine of which I am the algorithm.” The same is true of Facebook too, of course, which prioritises those people whose content you most frequently ‘like’. It is also true of Google, which is starting to take your location and your past browsing history into account when delivering search results. The danger with this, well documented with respects to Twitter, is that opinions that differ from your own are eventually weeded out of your personalised stream of information. Mistaken or ill-thought out beliefs are affirmed and not challenged, and our knowledge is weaker as a result. On a macro level, our democracies can become more polarised, with less consusus and a smaller space for compromise.
Once we are aware of this phenomenon, we can of course guard against it ‘manually’, by following people we disagree with, deliberately mixing up our RSS feeds, and otherwise introducing disruptions into the stream. There are two problems with this approach. The first, is that by confusiong or confounding the machines at Google and Facebook (to ensure that they serve you more diverse content) you are actually breaking their business model, because they can no longer target relevant adverts at you. If everyone did this, then advertisers will find other places to spend their pounds and dollars and the social internet services we rely upon may disappear. This is not necessarily our concern, and many people argue that essential web tools should not be provided by corporate bodies at all.
The second problem is that not everyone will introduce these disruptions into their stream. So while I may be reading all manner of different people with different views, they may not be reading me (or people like me) in return!
The worry, therefore, is that the liberating and equalising effects of the internet may begin to fizzle out. So far, we have been trumpeting the fact that anyone can become a global publisher with just a few keystrokes and clicks of a mouse. In recent years, once a website has been published, the author had the reasonable expectation that the site would have an equal chance of appearing, when a person looked for that subject matter on Google or other search engines. In the near future, this is unlikely to be so.
My final thought: I wonder what moral obligations Facebook etc have to me, to not filter what I publish on the web… Is there a free speech issue at stake here?