The Coercive Royal Charter

The Royal Charter that would establish a body to oversee press regulation was due to be referred to the Privy Council today. But industry bodies representing the press have filed an injunction against that happening. The court will examine the application this morning. Legal blogger and former government lawyer Carl Gardner says judges may grant the injunction for the time being, even as he doubts that any legal challenge by the press will ultimately succeed.

In the Monday editon of the Guardian, Helen Anthony (legal consultant to English PEN) laid out a succinct explanation of just what is wrong with the new regulatory system. Continue reading “The Coercive Royal Charter”

The Outliers

I have worked for (and with) some courageous people at English PEN.  I am often struck by the personal cost of exercising your right to free expression, and how damaging to life and finances taking stand can be.

For Banned Books Week, I was asked by Tor.com to write a piece on these people, the ‘Outliers’ who do the thing that most people would not.


Have you ever been stood up by Cory Doctorow? I have. Back in 2010 I was due to interview him at the London Book Fair about his latest novel For The Win. I read his entire back catalogue and planned loads of insightful questions, but when the time came for the interview in the PEN Literary cafe, he didn’t show up. Later, I received an e-mail from him with a preposterous and obviously made-up excuse about how his plane had been grounded by a volcano. So it was me on the stage with an empty chair. (My hastily written chat standard performance poem “The Empty Chair a.k.a Cory Doctorow Is Not Here Today” rocked YouTube, with literally dozens of views.) Continue reading “The Outliers”

Quoted in the Washington Post

I’m delighted to have spoken to the Washington Post for an article about the Twitter abuse furore:

“The worry is that the abuse button will be abused,” said Robert Sharp, a spokesman for English PEN, a literary group that promotes freedom of expression. “It puts the power of censorship into the hands of those who would be offended, which is fine when it’s a rape threat. But the same technology will be used by Christians to censor atheists, used by atheists to censor Christians, and so on.”

Credit where its due: Tom Phillips’ article on theTwitter abuse button was fresh in my mind when I spoke to the WaPo journalist.  And there’s a huge body of work out there on the issue of ‘offence’ as a trigger for censorship.  My turn of phrase “those who would be offended” is not natural speech, but its the sort of thing that springs to mind when you’ve been marinated in these kinds of arguments.

The Defamation Act 2013: Complete & Unabridged

As is my wont, I made a book to illustrate this. Physical objects are useful props in debates like this: immediately illustrative, and useful to hang an argument and peoples’ attention on.

James Bridle is probably best known as the artist who first articulated ‘The New Aesthetic‘, but he has run many projects on books and technology. His project ‘The Iraq War‘ is a favourite of mine – the entire Wikipedia Edit History of the ‘Iraq War’ article, from 2005-2009, which stretches to twelve volumes. He’s also the creator of a Book of Tweets.

James’ projects are the inspiration of one of my own – The Defamation Act 2013: Complete & Unabridged. It collects together, in chronological order, every single parliamentary document published during the passage of the recent reform of our libel law. These include the various versions of the Bill (which I have previously published in a spliced together version, ‘Tracked Changes in the Defamation Bill‘), the parliamentary Hansard transcripts of the debates; and the amendment papers. Continue reading “The Defamation Act 2013: Complete & Unabridged”

Discussing Assange in Politiken

I was quoted in the Danish newspaper Politiken yesterday, commenting on Julian Assange’s choice to seek political asylum in Ecuador (or at least, its London Embassy):

»Det kan virke som et lidt … bizart valg, når man ser på Ecuadors egen situation på området for ytringsfrihed«, siger kommunikationsdirektør Robert Sharp fra English PEN: »Det er mildest talt ikke et land, der normalt er kendt for at gå i brechen for ytringsfrihed«, siger Robert Sharp.

Essentially:  Its a bizarre choice when you look at Ecuador’s record on free expression issues.  At the very least, its not a country that has a reputation for standing up for free expression.

Check your privilege: Whose free speech is it anyway?

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 the New 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?

Thoughts on the Mail on Sunday secret scandal

According to the Mail on Sunday, David Cameron recently learnt of a sex-scandal involving prominent members of his government. ‘For legal reasons’ the paper cannot name the people involved.

On Twitter, people are cautious. Many cite the injunction that prevents anyone naming names. The judgement in the Lord McAlpine vs Sally Bercow is fresh in everyone’s minds. Even guessing may amount to contempt of court.

Meanwhile, blogger Paul Staines (Guido Fawkes) claims to already know the identities, while other journalists say they have worked it out.

During the ‘super-injunction’ furore in 2011 (which culminated in Ryan Giggs being named in Parliament as having taken out such an order to prevent a kiss-and-tell story by Imogen Thomas) I recall that both the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph printed ridiculous puff pieces about an actor who had been named on Twitter as having used a prostitute and then taken out a super injunction to prevent the story from vein reported.. Both pieces called the actor a family man, and the Telegraph cleverly worked certain film titles into the piece that, for those in the know, referenced the sordid tale.

For those in the know.

It may be that Monday’s newspapers contain similar clues. Those who usually try to solve the cryptic cross words may try their luck and deciphering the hints and breadcrumbs buried within the newspapers coverage. In the coming days, look out for odd turns of phrase, and out-of-place or fawning profiles of cabinet ministers in the newspapers. They will be the *innocent face* of the mainstream media, drawing attention to those in the know.

This is all desperately problematic. In the next few days, we may find ourselves in a situation where the majority of the political and media class will know the identity of the Downing Street adulterers. People like me, who exist on the periphery of that world and have a couple of friends in journalism, will probably find out too. That’s if Twitter doesn’t get there first. And everyone who knows will probably tell their partners and a few other close mates, “so long as you don’t broadcast it”.

And if the group of those in the know is sufficiently large, then the privacy of the people involved has not been protected. Their reputation will have been damaged.

In fact, I reckon that I am a pretty good canary-down-the-mine for this. There must be literally thousands of people like me who work on the fringes of politics and/or spend a fair chunk of time on the Internet. Assuming that the identities are not revealed in a big newspaper splash (a possibility) then I will posit that when I discover the identities, then in no sense can it be said that the privacy or the reputation of the people involved remains protected..

This is not a free speech manifesto and I will not break any injunction. Social media and blogging are both forms of publishing, legally no different from writing a newspaper article.

My point is this – there may come a moment in the next few days or week, when there will be common knowledge facts that no-one will speak about in the open, and everyone will play along with the charade that the names remain unknown.

And when societies participate in a collective omertà, we should start to get worried.

Update

Well, that did not take long. I have now discovered the names of the people involved. My methods were so rudimentary I can confidently say that many, many people are now in the know. It will make it easier to spot cryptic clues in the Monday papers much easier (but less fun).

Update II

Trial reveals Brooks-Coulson affair.


As someone who likes to link to what I am referring to, it is incredibly frustrating to be unable to do so in this case… because I think the injunction may still be in place. I will investigate and post the links if it is legal to do so!

Liberty Annual Conference: Is Speech Free Online?

I was delighted to be asked to speak on a panel at the Liberty Annual Conference yesterday. I took part in the ‘Is Speech Free Online?’ discussion with Ian Dunt of politics.co.uk and the Erotic Review, and Bella Sankey, Liberty’s policy director. Martin Howe was the chair.

Speaking first, my co-panellist Ian Dunt made a pertinent point about how the low financial barriers to free speech online are also the reason that online speech may be threatened. People do not need financial reserves in order to publish online – It is cheap and quick. However, this lack of money also means they are more vulnerable to being sued by those who do have money and power. The publishing divide is not between online/offline, but between those with lawyers, and those without.

I began own my remarks by noting that speech was most certainly not free online in other parts of the world. I cited the recent manoeuvrings to criminalise online dissent by the Azerbaijan parliament; China shutting down dissident Sina Weibo accounts; and Fazil Say’s suspended sentence in Turkey.

I spoke about the recent prosecutions from remarks made on social media, and the fact that current laws include the word ‘offensive’ as a trigger for prosecution, which is open to abuse. I noted how the immediacy of social media messaging meant that immature political views follow you around long after they should have been discarded, but that Tweeting and Facebooking are forms of publishing and could never be cordoned off as some special type of speech that is subjected to different laws. Parents and teachers need to help the young ‘uns be savvier about what they choose to publish online. I finished by warning that we cannot take our free expression for granted when we use social media spaces that feel public, but are in fact owned by corporations with a profit motive to censor if it is in their financial interests to do so.

The player is below or you can listen on SoundCloud.

During the Q&A I also managed to slip in a few re-tweetables about the nature of free speech and ‘counter-speech’.

Here’s the view from the panel just before the start of the session, as people began to filter in.

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"A looming democratic deficit"?

The folk at the brilliant OurKingdom blog commissioned a piece from me on the next steps for Libel Reform.  The crucial issue:

During the Parliamentary debates, the Government flatly rejected proposals to extend the Derbyshire principle to private companies spending taxpayers money. British citizens are therefore confronted with a looming democratic deficit. As private companies take over the running of prisons, waste collection, school dinners, care homes, and large swathes of the NHS, the space to criticise them is squeezed. By leaving the Derbyshire principle to the courts to develop further, the Government have introduced an unwelcome ambiguity into our public discourse, especially at the local level. It will be left to citizens to closely monitor how the big subcontractors behave in this area. Any hint that these corporations are stifling public criticism through use of the libel law must be met with a public outcry.

Read the whole article, What next for libel reform?, on the OurKingdom blog.