I Told You So! When Media and Tech Companies Fail To Self-Regulate, Governments Step In

Following the revelations about the harvesting of personal data by Cambridge Analytica and the ongoing worries about abuse and threats on social media, the UK House of Lords Select Committee on Communications last week began a new inquiry entitled ‘Is It Time To Regulate The Internet?’. At the witness sessions so far, peers have opened by asking each expert to comment on whether they favour self-regulation, co-regulation, or state-regulation.

The instinct to regulate is not limited to the U.K. Late last year senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) said:

You’ve created these platforms, and now they’re being misused, and you have to be the ones to do something about it… Or we will.

With the reader’s indulgence, these developments remind me of a point I made a few years ago at ORGcon2013, when I was speaking on a panel alongside Facebook VP for Public Policy EMEA, Richard Allan:

If we as the liberal free speech advocates don’t come up with alternative ways of solving things like the brutal hate speech against women, the hideous environment for comments that we see online, then other people are going to fix it for us. And they’re going to fix it in a draconian, leglislative way. So if we want to stop that happening, we need to come up with alternative ways of making people be nicer!

An audio recording of these remarks is on SoundCloud.

Its clear that neither Facebook, nor anyone in the technically minded audience at ORGCon, managed to solve the problem I raised. And lo! The legislators have arrived.

A Litany of the Ways In Which Facebook Corrupts the Spirit of Free Speech

Following my short appearance in a BBC news report yesterday, I had hoped to publish a companion blog post here, making all the free speechy points that were edited out of my contribution. Instead, I strayed off piste and ended up with this litany of complaints about Facebook. A useful aide memoir for the future, with a couple of useful insights, maybe.


When it comes to free speech, even the most hardened advocates tend to draw the line at incitement to violence. “Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins” wrote Zechariah Chafee. Freedom of expression is not absolute, and when people publish text or video that is likely to provoke violence, it is legitimate to censor that content.

Inciting violence and hate is what Britain First group appear to have been doing, so the Facebook decision to ban their page feels righteous. Good riddance? Nothing to see here? Move along?

Not quite. This development is still problematic and draws our attention to the unexpected role that social media plays in our politics. We have been discussing these problems for years without, in my opinion, coming any closer to solving them. Continue reading “A Litany of the Ways In Which Facebook Corrupts the Spirit of Free Speech”

Discussing Britain First and Facebook on BBC South East

The racist far right group Britain First have been banned from Facebook. BBC South East reported the story and interviewed yrstrly for English PEN. Here’s what I said:

We abhor what Britain First stands for, but nevertheless there are some unintended consequences with this move. Shutting down speech you don’t like is deeply problematic—It means that countries around the world can use it as an excuse to shut down speech they don’t like. And it also alienates certain sections of the British population, [with whom] we really need to have a dialogue…

Obviously this is just a small excerpt from a longer interview I gave to the news team. There is a lot more to say about this issue, in particular about how we appear to have ceded most of our political discourse to private companies running social media platforms. There is also a real issue surrounding the efficacy of counter-speech, and what both social media and the traditional broadcasters might do in order to give better, bigger platforms to the kind of options that can counter and neutralise the far right threat. I will post more on this soon.

In the meantime, the entire South East Today programme for 14th March is currently available on the BBC iPlayer.

Quoted in the Mail on Sunday

I was quoted very briefly in the Mail on Sunday this weekend, in an article about a new police strategy for cracking down on Twitter abuse and threats.

It is feared that this will lead to large numbers of comments being reported to social media providers or police as inappropriate, even if they were only meant jokingly or had no malicious intent.  Robert Sharp, of the anti-censorship group English PEN, said: ‘Threats of violence must of course be investigated and prosecuted, but the police need to tread carefully.’

Continue reading “Quoted in the Mail on Sunday”

We should rethink ‘NSFW’

Here’s a timeline of Facebook censorship of breasts and other anatomical parts.

When I posted this to Facebook just now, I was going to add the abbreviation ‘NSFW’, Not Safe For Work. But that prompts two thoughts. The first is that my work actually involves looking at links and images like those displayed here! I often wonder if I have inadvertently shocked my colleagues who have accidentally wandered past my screen while I was reading some link about porn or violence or racism or something.

Second, its surely a problem that our culture, as reflected in the Facebook image usage policies, deems images such as masectomies, nude drawings, and breastfeeding as “NSFW” regardless of context. Why shouldn’t these images, undeniably in the public interest, be viewed at work?

I reckon we should start labelling images and GIFs from sporting events as ‘NSFW’ because surely that’s the number one content that should not be viewed at work, damging as it is to productivity.

Dear Lord King: Ludditry is not cool, it’s dangerous

Oh! This puts me in such a bad mood.

http://twitter.com/jjvincent/status/560082501075742721

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”

The #Sunifesto is confused about free speech

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.

IMG_7546.JPG

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.

Discussing Privacy on AsianCorrespondent.com

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.

More comments here.

The Darker Side of 'Selfies'

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.

And selfies are now routinely used by the newspapers to illustrate tragic young deaths.  Whether it is a car accident, a drug overdose, a gang murder, or a bullying related suicide, the photo editors turn to the victim’s Facebook page or Twitter stream to harvest images.  The latest example of this is Hannah Smith, who committed suicide last week.  I noted a couple of years ago how they were used to report the overdose of Issy Jones-RiellyAnd the reporting on the joint-suicide of Charleigh Disbrey and Mert Karaoglan in June was heavy with ‘selfies’. Continue reading “The Darker Side of 'Selfies'”

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?