Discussing the Online Forums Bill on Sky News

On Tuesday 11th September, Lucy Powell MP introduced the Online Forums Bill to Parliament. It was a ‘Ten Minute Rule Bill’, a mechanism by which opposition and backbench members of parliament can introduce legislation.  The text of Ms Powell’s speech may be found in Hansard and there is a video on Parliament.tv.

The speech makes some challenging points. How is it that Facebook groups can grow to tens of thousands of people in secret, with no oversight or scrutiny? One such group, which discussed autism, recommended that parents give their kids ‘bleach enemas’ to cure the condition.

Powell also points out that members of these groups often feel too intimidated to speak out against the most vocal and radical members of the group. This shifts the dynamics of such groups to ever more extreme positions, and is a very particular free speech issue in itself.

The bill proposes that online forum operators like Facebook be forced to take greater responsibility for what is published on their platforms. Just after the parliamentary debate concluded, I was invited onto Sky News to discuss the proposals. The segment can be viewed below or on YouTube. Continue reading “Discussing the Online Forums Bill on Sky News”

Why Are We Following Panic Brexit?

On the morning of 24th June 2016 I wrote a post on my blog entitled ‘Here’s What We Need To Do Now’.

Here’s What We Need To Do Now

The ‘we’ in that post were the Remainers. I recommended we refrained from moaning about racist, insular Brexiteers and instead adopted a conciliatory attitude. To accept that a bad decision had been made but then endeavour to make withdrawal from the EU work.

None of that happened, of course. Continue reading “Why Are We Following Panic Brexit?”

For Alex Jones, The Slippery Slope Argument Doesn’t Work The Way You Think It Does

Alps from Aiguille du Midi (SW) by Tony Fernandez. Creative Commons licenced photo on Flickr

The news that conspiracy theorist and inciter-to-violence Alex Jones had been simultaneously banned from several social media platforms sparked several days of debate and comment – on both mainstream and social media. At stake were questions about the wisdom and efficacy of such a ban, and the acceptable limits of free speech.

A common argument trotted out in several quarters, including by me, was the ‘slippery slope’ argument. It might seem acceptable to ban someone unpleasant like Alex Jones, but who might they ban next? First they came for Alex Jones, but I was not a dangerous snake-oil salesman, so I did not speak up… Continue reading “For Alex Jones, The Slippery Slope Argument Doesn’t Work The Way You Think It Does”

Two Conceptions of Free Speech in Ancient Athens

I’m really enjoying ‘Clear and Present Danger: The Free Speech Podcast’ hosted by Jacob Mchangama. Its a comprehensive tour of the concept of freedom of expression. It begins in ancient Athens and there are episodes on the Romans, early Christianity, freedom of thought in the Islamic world, and how heresy was persecuted in medieval times.

One crucial piece of information about the concept of freedom of expression, which I think is desperately relevant to our modern debates and disputes, comes in the first episode. Mchangama points out that there are actually two philosophical idea embedded in the Athenian conception of free speech and which drove their democracy. Continue reading “Two Conceptions of Free Speech in Ancient Athens”

Anger, Contempt, and Constructive Disagreement

Free speech is supposed to be facilitate human progress. In its ideal form, it enables debate and causes us to iterate better political policies, better cultural outputs and a better society.

In reality, the marketplace of ideas, if it exists at all, is corrupt and monopolised by those with money and power.

One aspect of freedom of expression I think about a lot is the way in which disagreements happen. I’ve expressed dismay at how some free speech advocates seem remarkably uninterested in listening to other points of view, and only really care about their own right to offend. And I’ve noted how many spats seem to disintegrate into a competition over who can first reach a place of unassailable piety. Continue reading “Anger, Contempt, and Constructive Disagreement”

The Selfishness of a Career for Career’s Sake

Writing in the New Statesman about how useless and selfish Boris Johnson has been as Foreign Secretary, John Elledge says this:

There’s no evidence he cares about the public good, nor matters of policy, nor even ideology: he treats politics as a game, and his goal has only ever been to reach the next square on the board. This was how politics worked in the latter part of the Roman Republic, where the entire point was to complete the cursus honorum quicker than your peers

Not a classicist myself, I needed Wikipedia to tell me that cursus honorum is a set of public offices that aspiring politicians sought to hold. Ostensibly as a means of securing well rounded training in matters civic and military, but (by the end) a means of self-aggrandisement. Continue reading “The Selfishness of a Career for Career’s Sake”

The Turkish Event Horizon: One Science Fiction Fan’s Thoughts on the Turkey Election

Black Hole in the Universe

Nine days ago, the authoritarian president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, prevailed in a surprise election. He is now expected to consolidate his power and further erode civil liberties.

My friend Mehmet, who is an avid reader of science fiction, just sent me a brilliant description of what it feels like to be a Turkish citizen right now, Reproduced with his permission.

We were really disappointed with the election results last week. It felt like crossing the event horizon to be sucked into the center of a black hole where reality is irreversibly bent and there is no way of going back. We both felt tired, depleted, lost for a couple of days but I guess we are adjusting now. For a split second hope was very vivid and then it went away again. We’re grasping for straws right now, but we know we have to find ways to be optimistic again. Some say black holes are beginnings of new universes, right?

Yeah But The Other Side Started It

Mohammed Abed

Terrible, terrible scenes on the border between Gaza and Israel. The IDF have massacred 52 protesters.

Meanwhile, social media is full of people seeking to justify and excuse this violence. The main line being parroted seems to be that Hamas provoked the attacks, because dead Palestinians are politically useful.

There may be some within the Hamas leadership who think like that, but that does not excuse or mitigate the violence by Israel, a country that is supposed to be a democracy, that is supposed to respect human rights.

What we need to remember in these situations is that blame is not zero sum. It can be possible for Hamas to have malign motives in staging the protest and putting people in danger. That does not remove moral culpability from the Israeli soldiers who pulled the trigger; nor the Israeli politicians who endorse their actions; nor the American politicians who in turn protect those Israeli politicians from accountability. Continue reading “Yeah But The Other Side Started It”

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.

Review: THE ELECTION (ITV)

St John's Grove, Preston Road Estate

2nd May 2019

The chattering classes just love to compare the low turnouts at local and general elections, with the fact that people actually choose to pay money to vote for reality TV contestants. So it is surprising that the Television executives took so long to produce The Election.

It was doubly surprising that it was commercial ITV that gazumped the BBC in what should have been an open-goal commission for our public service broadcaster, and triply surprising that ITV, after being spectacularly dumped by Simon Cowell at the end of 2017, should have chosen to replace their flagship musical talent show with political programming.

We should be glad that they did so, because The Election has proved to be one of the best things on TV on this political cycle, and I’m going to go out on a limb and say we’ll still be talking about the show a decade from now… if it isn’t still on the air, a dozen series older. Continue reading “Review: THE ELECTION (ITV)”