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”

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”

Dr Alex Mills on Facebook T&Cs

Back in March, I participated in a round-table discussion hosted by the University College London’s Institute of Advanced Studies, on the subject of defamation. I will post my remarks at some point, but for now (primarily because of a media appearance I made today) I wanted to share a remark made by Dr Alex Mills about the state of Facebook Terms & Conditions.

What you have when you look at Facebook’s community standards is a defamation law that you would write on a postcard if you were trying to explain a sort of version of American defamation law to someone who wasn’t a lawyer.

Continue reading “Dr Alex Mills on Facebook T&Cs”

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.

Twitter Betrays The Promise of Free Speech For All

Buffalo Jump at Wind Cave National Park

Writing in the Guardian last week, Carole Cadwalladr lamented the way in which Twitter catalyses and facilitates global bullying. This prompted a short exchange between me David Heinemann from Index on Censorship. We noted the betrayed promise of free speech for all that social media offers, and what—or rather, who—might solve the problem.
Continue reading “Twitter Betrays The Promise of Free Speech For All”

The Needle Returns To The Start Of The Song And We All Sing Along Like Before

Hideous news from Las Vegas. It’s the deadliest mass shooting in the history of the United States.

Reading the coverage and the commentary, I’m reminded of the song ‘Nothing Ever Happens‘ by the Scottish band Del Amitri.

The song is 28 years old now.  Some of the lyrics I find too simplistic, like a sixth former berating the world (“Ignorant people sleep in their beds, like the doped white mice in the college lab”). But in other ways it feels contemporary:

Nothing ever happens / Nothing happens at all / The needle returns to the start of the song and we all sing along like before

Continue reading “The Needle Returns To The Start Of The Song And We All Sing Along Like Before”

Quoted in Heat Street on Social Media Prosecutions

The Crown Prosecution Service have updated their guidelines for when someone should be prosecuted for something posted to social media.  I spoke to Kieran Corcoran of Heat Street about how the UK laws governing social media really need to be updated:

Robert Sharp, a spokesman for free speech campaigners English PEN, also commented, telling us: “Free speech must always include the right to offend.

“The law already bans abusive, harassing or threatening messages, which is surely adequate to stop the worst social media trolls.

“The words ‘grossly offensive’ are highly subjective and introduce ambiguity into the the law. This in turn chills free speech.

“Parliament should legislate to remove these words from the Communications Act, just as it removed similar wording from the Public Order Act in 2014.

“Other countries look to the UK on free speech issues – criminalising causing offence sets a poor international example.”

The CPS has tried to head off criticism of its new laws by advising prosecutors to exercise “considerable caution” in their decision-making to avoid “a chilling effect on free speech”.

The Public Order Act amendment I mentioned was a tweak to section 5.  See the Reform Section 5 website for more details.

I Made A Freedom of Information Request About Revenge Porn Prosecutions, and What I Learned Will Be Mildly Diverting If You’re Interested in This Sort of Thing

Last month, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) published a report on Violence Against Women.  It received significant pick-up in the media due to the high number of revenge porn prosecutions that have been brought since a new law was introduced.

I made a Freedom of Information request to the CPS, to ask whether they could tell me how many of the victims in the cases they prosecuted were women. I assumed they would have this information to hand.

I received a reply to my request today. It turns out that they do not keep track of that information Continue reading “I Made A Freedom of Information Request About Revenge Porn Prosecutions, and What I Learned Will Be Mildly Diverting If You’re Interested in This Sort of Thing”