Online Harms: A Few Times When The Algorithms Chilled Freedom of Expression

'Lot and his Daughters' by Oeter Paul Rubens

The consultation to the British government’s Online Harms White Paper closed this week. English PEN and Scottish PEN made a submission, arguing that the government rethink its approach.

The government proposal is that a new ‘duty of care’ is placed upon online platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to protect their users. If they expose users to harmful content—ranging from terrorist propaganda and child porn, to hazily defined problems like ‘trolling’ — then a new regulator could sanction them.

This sounds sensible, but it presents a problem for freedom of expression. If the online platforms are threatened with large fines, and their senior management are held personally responsible for the ‘duty of care’ then it’s likely that the online platforms will take a precautionary approach to content moderation. Whenever in doubt, whenever it’s borderline, whenever there is a grey area… the platforms will find it expeditious to remove whatever has been posted. When that happens, it is unlikely that the platforms will offer much of an appeals process, and certainly not one that abides by international free speech standards. A situation will arise where perfectly legal content cannot be posted online. A two tier system for speech. Continue reading “Online Harms: A Few Times When The Algorithms Chilled Freedom of Expression”

Press Gazette op-ed on Lachaux and Press Standards

Following the Lachaux case at the Supreme Court earlier this week, I wrote an op-ed for Press Gazette on its implications for free speech and press standards.

Key paragraph:

After a period of uncertainty, the Lachaux judgment returns the section one standard to that applied in Cooke. The publisher’s response to a complaint can really make a difference to the “serious harm” assessment.

You can read the entire op-ed on the Press Gazette website.

Quoted in the Guardian and the Bookseller discussing the ‘Lachaux’ case at the Supreme Court

I was at the UK Supreme Court yesterday to hear the judgment in Lachaux v. Independent Print Ltd and another. It was a significant challenge to section 1 of the Defamation Act 2013, which long-term readers of this blog will recall was the (successful) end result of English PEN’s Libel Reform Campaign.

Section 1 of the law introduced a test of ‘serious harm’ before a claimant could sue. It was designed to expand the space for free speech by weeding out trivial claims.

A statement is not defamatory unless its publication has caused or is likely to cause serious harm to the reputation of the claimant.

The Lachaux case hinged on the semantics of that section of the law.  Do the words “has caused or is likely to cause” refer to real world effects, past or future? Or do they just mean that the words have a tendency to cause serious harm to reputation.

As Bishop Berkeley might have asked: If I call you a domestic abuser in a forest, and no-one hears, have I caused serious harm to your reputation? Continue reading “Quoted in the Guardian and the Bookseller discussing the ‘Lachaux’ case at the Supreme Court”

‘That Bastard Pardon’ –Writing on Myanmar Journalists for the New Statesman

English PEN banners protesting the imprisonment of Free Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, the two Reuter’s journalists unjustly imprisoned in Myanmar, have been released.

I have written a short piece for the New Statesman, commenting on how presidential pardons do nothing to tackle the underlying injustice, and perpetuate the chill on freedom of expression.

Pardons have a particular place in judicial systems. There may be unusual circumstances where a person has indeed broken the law, but the sentence imposed is inappropriate. A pardon asserts that the conviction was correct, but alleviates the punishment.

That is wholly unsatisfactory in cases where the law has been abused, as it was in the case of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo. Although they are out of prison, there has been no acknowledgement by the state that the convictions were a clear miscarriage of justice. In fact, the pardon reasserts the just opposite – that there was nothing wrong with the imprisonment.

Read the whole thing on the New Statesman website. Continue reading “‘That Bastard Pardon’ –Writing on Myanmar Journalists for the New Statesman”

Censorship and Capitulation at the Saachti Gallery

Oh dear. The Saachti Gallery has covered up some paintings after complaints that they are blasphemous.

The gallery, founded by the advertising magnate Charles Saatchi, rejected calls from some visitors to remove the paintings, arguing it was up to visitors to come to their own conclusions on the meaning of the art. However, in response to the complaints, SKU suggested as a compromise the works should remain on the gallery wall but be covered up with sheets.

“It seemed a respectful solution that enables a debate about freedom of expression versus the perceived right not to be offended,” he said in a statement to the Sunday Times.

I’ll tell you what’s offensive — capitulating to censorious complaints, and then trying to dampen the impact of your decision by saying that it ‘enables a debate about freedom of expression.’ Continue reading “Censorship and Capitulation at the Saachti Gallery”

Discussing the UK visa system in The Bookseller

UK Border

Nick Barley, director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, has warned that the UK visa system alienates cultural visitors and is in dire need of an overhaul. In recent years, participants in the EIBF and other major UK festivals have had trouble getting permission to enter the UK – a huge freedom of expression issue for them, and for British audiences who have a right to hear them speak.

I’m also quoted in the piece, noting the many ways in which the UK visa system conspires to discourage cultural visitors.

“Here, I’ve noticed that the issue with visa refusals is not just the culture of ‘suspicion’ which leads to some authors and writers, usually young and usually from countries that are poor or which have security or human rights issues, being refused. The visa application system itself is too complex and it’s too easy to make a mistake or to provide incomplete information, which can also lead to a refusal. And the Home Office never provides any opportunity for the applicant to clarify or amend an application.”

He added: “The system is a combination of hostility and complexity that turns people off as well as turns people away. That this is a case is absolutely a political choice – yet another way in which antipathy towards immigration hurts British culture.”

The Misattribution of Evelyn Beatrice Hall

Last year I posted some notes about the famous free speech formulation “I hate what you say, but defend your right to say it” which is erroneously attributed to Voltaire. I think the fact that it was actually written by Evelyn Beatrice Hall about Voltaire’s philosophy is now quite widely known, as evidenced by the extent of the gleeful crowing of ‘well actually’ every time some-one prominent (like education minister Sam Gimyah MP in The Times last year) gets the attribution wrong.

While writing my post about Hall (whose pen-name was S. G. Tallentyre) I naturally searched for a picture of her online. A Google image search for ‘Evelyn Beatrice Hall’ throws up dozens of versions of the image below: a young, determined looking woman with a sword. Many of the images that the search yields include the famous free speech quote, properly attributed to Hall. Continue reading “The Misattribution of Evelyn Beatrice Hall”

Hey, Haifa! 1999 called and it wants it’s controversy back!

At a museum in Haifa, Israel, a sculpture called McJesus has been removed from display.

The name of piece by Jani Leinonen tells you exactly what it looks like and also gives heavy clues as to why it is controversial: it is the crucifixion of Ronald McDonald.

There have been angry protests against the sculpture by Israeli Christians who consider it offensive and blasphemous. There were threats of fire bombing.

The sculpture brings to mind another crucifixion mash-up, Immersion (Piss Christ) by Andreas Serrano (1987). I also think of The Holy Virgin Mary by Chris Ofili (1996), a picture painted using elephant dung and which features pornographic imagery. Rudi Giuliani, then mayor of New York, called it ‘sick’ when the painting was exhibited there in 1999.

Continue reading “Hey, Haifa! 1999 called and it wants it’s controversy back!”

It’s fine to call an MP a Nazi. But it’s not OK to threaten them

Well okay, it’s not fine. It is almost certainly not true, it is very rude, it coarsens our political discourse, it widens divisions, and I really really wish people wouldn’t do it.

But when pro-Brexit protesters call a Remain-supporting MP a ‘Nazi,’ that most certainly is political speech and should be covered by free speech protections.

By contrast, it is not okay to physically intimidate anyone, whether that person is is a man, a woman… or an MP. Continue reading “It’s fine to call an MP a Nazi. But it’s not OK to threaten them”

Protesting the Imprisonment of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo

English PEN banners protesting the imprisonment of Free Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo

I just noticed that the International Observatory for Human Rights put up a video last month, publicising the demonstration they did outside the Embassy of Myanmar in September. The ‘occasion’, so to speak, was the ridiculous jailing of Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo.

I was at the demo, representing English PEN, and am featured briefly in the video, calling on The British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt to put pressure on Aung San Suu Kyi.

Continue reading “Protesting the Imprisonment of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo”