Tag Archives: free speech

A few quick notes on the Twitter arrest

The Guardian reports:

Man arrested over Twitter threats to female MP and campaigner.
Police investigating threats to Stella Creasy and Caroline Criado-Perez say 32-year-old is being held in Bristol.

Some quick notes:

  1. Let us affirm that sending direct threats of violence to people is against the law.  Arresting and charging such people is not an affront to free expression.
  2. In fact, the threats are themselves an act of censorship.  They instill fear in the recipient, who may withdraw from the discourse.
  3. This arrest is in keeping with the Director of Public Prosecutions recent guidelines on dealing with social media messages.  The guidelines recommend that direct threats and harassment should be proecuted ‘robustly’.  Expect this chap in Bristol to be charged.
  4. Note that the police managed to track down this chap using existing powers and technical abilities.
  5. It is interesting that the man arrested is 32 years old.  All the other arrests and convictions were of much younger men.  Reece Messer (who trolled Tom Daley) was only 17.

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.

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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

Twitter trolls vs The Angry Mob

There has been another wave of online discussion about ‘trolling’ on social media platforms like Twitter.  The latest round of debate began after Caroline Criado-Perez wrote about the hideous abuse she received during the course of her campaign to keep a woman on the £10 note.

I have contributed a few comments in the past on this issue, and do not have anything new to say on the current controversy, save to say that at some point (it may be now, it may be later) the politicians will seek to impose legislation on this kind of speech.  I mentioned this conundrum during my #ORGcon panel discussion with David Allen Green et al in June.

In the meantime, a few quick links:

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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.

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Tracked Changes in the Defamation Bill

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Jubilate!  The Defamation Bill recieved Royal Assent yesterday It is now the Defamation Act 2013.

Watching the legislative process up close has been fascinating.  It fills me with confidence that candidate laws are put to such detailed and rigourous debate.

To give a sense of how a Bill changes as it passes through both Houses of Parliament, I have created a Defamation Bill (Tracked Changes) document.  Download a PDF [223 KB] or a Word Document [49 KB].  It is based on the successive Bills and amendments found on the Houses of Parliament website.  In the document, you can see how some clauses were tweaked, with the alteration of a word here or there.  In other places you can see where whole clauses were added and then removed, as the House of Commons disagreed with the House of Lords. Continue reading

What the hell just happened with the Defamation Bill?

There’s a little bit of confusion over what happened during the Defamation Bill debate in the House of Lords yesterday afternoon, and today in the House of Commons. This is understandable, as the ‘ping-pong’ process is confusing, with ‘motions to agree amendments’… and amendments to those amendments.

The only issue at stake was was hurdles should be placed before companies wishing to sue. The pre-exising law allows corporates to bully critics with libel threats and a legal ‘reputation management’ industry has emerged, with websites and bloggers receiving threats unless they remove critical content. Which?, the consumer magazine that reviews products, often receives a legal threat after they give a product a poor rating!

In an earlier parliamentary debate, Labour succeeded in adding a significant clause to the Defamation Bill. It introduced a permissions stage for companies (you can’t sue without leave of the court) and asked them to show financial loss. It also extended the Derbyshire principle, so private bodies delivering public services could not sue when they are criticised by citizens questioning how taxpayers money is spent. Three measures in one clause.

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Defamation Day

No, not a day where we pick someone to defame.  Instead it is the final parliamentary debate on the Defamation Bill.

Following this process has been a great way to watch how law-making really happens.  In this case, the Government published a draft Bill for consultation.  The proposed law was then debated on the floor of the House of Commons, then by a smaller group of MPs in a Public Bill Committee (days 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5), then again in the House of Commons.  A similar process took place in the House of Lords, with a more generalised debate preceding detailed scrutiny in a Grand Committee (days 1, 2, 3 and 4), followed by more debates.

Now, the amendments made to the Bill by each House are being debated and accepted by the other.  Today, the House of Lords have one final aspect of the Defamation Bill to consider, which is the limits that should be placed on ‘non-natural persons’ (i.e. companies and associations) that wish to sue.

The Government have already agreed that a corporation must show financial loss if they want to claim that they have suffered serious harm, but is still dragging its feet on what access private companies delivering taxpayer-funded services should have to the libel law.

Currently, central government and local councils cannot sue their citizens!  This is established by the common-law Derbyshire principle, which protects unhibited criticism of democratically elected institutions and their agencies.  However, the trend towards contracting out public services to private companies means that this principle has been undermined.  For example, you can criticise a publically run prison, or a local council’s waste collection service… but if you criticise a private prison or a sub-contracted bin collection service, then you run the risk of a libel threat!

With the reforms to the NHS meaning more services will be commissioned from private companies, this loophole will only get bigger.  Imagine if your healthcare was managed poorly, and a blog or a tweet about it prompted a lawyers letter!

This afternoon, the House of Lords will be debating this issue and hopefully they will vote to fix it in the Defamation Bill.  I will be watching the debate online on the Houses of Parliament website.

Press regulation and the Internet's "ethical vacuum"

Following the Royal Charter announcement earlier this week, there has been much concern over how the new system for press regulation will affect bloggers.  English PEN expressed concerns about this immediately after the Leveson Report was published.  On Labour List, Mark Fergerson called the Internet ‘The Elephant in the Room‘ and in the Guardian, Emily Bell said the Royal Charter was ‘illiterate‘ about the Internet.  Since this problem arises from the lack of discussion about the Internet in the Leveson Report, it is worth revisiting that document to see what Leveson actually said.

It is technically wrong to say that Leveson only devotes one page to the Internet in his entire 2,000 page report.  In Volume I, pages 164 to 178 are given over to describing part of the online publishing ecosystem – Huffington Post, Popbitch, and Guido Fawkes.  However, there are only five paragraphs of actual analysis on the Internet, on pages 736-37 (Volume II).  Leveson says:

Many editors and commentators have argued that the burgeoning of the internet is likely to render irrelevant much of the work of the Inquiry even assuming that it has not already done so. If, for example, celebrity X’s privacy is violated online, then the metaphorical cat is well out of the bag, and there is no reason why open season should not exist in the printed media. …

In my view, this argument is flawed for two reasons. … the internet does not claim to operate by any particular ethical standards, still less high ones. Some have called it a ‘wild west’ but I would prefer to use the term ‘ethical vacuum’. This is not to say for one moment that everything on the internet is therefore unethical. That would be a gross miischaracterisation of the work of very many bloggers and websites which should rightly and fairly be characterised as valuable and professional. The point I am making is a more modest one, namely that the internet does not claim to operate by express ethical standards, so that bloggers and others may, if they choose, act with impunity.

The press, on the other hand, does claim to operate by and adhere to an ethical code of conduct.

This, in a nutshell, is the justification of focusing on regulating the tradition print media, and not on the wider publishing ecosystem.  Superficially, Lord Justice Leveson’s reasoning seems persuasive, but I think he mistakes precisely what ‘freedom of the press’ actually is.  Writing in the New Statesman last July (i.e. before Leveson reported), legal blogger David Allen Green explained the term:

The “press” to which it refers is often identified by many in England with the big-P Press of Fleet Street: the professional journalists who have “press cards” and go along to “press awards” …  But this may not be the best way of understanding the term.  In fact, the expression “freedom of the press” significantly predates the existence of the modern newspaper industry, which was largely a product of the late 1800s and early 1900s.  Instead, the expression “freedom of the press” came out of the great age of pamphleteering and protest which occurred during and after the civil wars in Britain of the mid-1600s…. In this way “freedom of the press” was not some entitlement of a media elite but a more basic right of anyone to circulate their ideas more widely than they could do simply by themselves.

So perhaps Leveson is wrong to suggest that bloggers and the Internet exist in an ‘ethical vacuum’.  The act of publishing what you wish, without interference, is inately a ethical act, excercising moral rights, that is available to everyone.  Its wrong to create a two-tier ethical system, with bloggers and print journalists on different planes.  And it is wrong to create enshire a two-tier regulatory system in law, too.

Press Regulation: Grant us serenity

My Nan had a prayer blue-tacked to her fridge.  It is by It is by Reinhold Neibuhr:

Dear Lord,
Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And the wisdom to know the difference.

We would do well to remember this in the debate over press regulation.

I think a great deal of the motivation of politicians and campaigners to impose regulation on the press comes from a hatred of its hackery, rather than phone hacking. Shoddy reporting, blatant ideological propaganda, and quotes taken out of context in order to misrepresent and sensationalise. Continue reading