If You’re Worried About Political Correctness Going Too Far, then You Had Better Oppose The Threat to Judicial Review and Human Rights

Harry Miller at the Royal Courts of Justice

Are you the sort of person who gets annoyed with ‘political correctness’? Are you fed up with ‘woke’ students and minority rights activists seeking to police your thoughts? Exasperated with civil servants attempting to social engineer us all?

Well then you had better get behind the campaign to save judicial review.

Last week Mr Justice Julian Knowles of the Administrative Division of the High Court handed down his judgment in R (Miller) v The College of Policing and another [2020] EWHC 225 (Admin). Continue reading “If You’re Worried About Political Correctness Going Too Far, then You Had Better Oppose The Threat to Judicial Review and Human Rights”

What We Talk About When We Talk About Alastair Stewart

Free speech furores now happen on a weekly basis. The latest iteration concerns the ITN newsreader Alastair Stewart, who has stepped down from his duties following some regrettable posts on social media.

At the centre of the controversy is a quote from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, which he posted during an argument with activist Martin Shapland. It includes the line “His glassy essence, like an angry ape.” Shapland is black, so the post attracted accusations of racism (comparing black people to apes is an undeniable racist trope).

In that respect, it echoes a controversy last year, when Danny Baker posted a picture of a chimpanzee and likened it to the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s new baby Archie (who, like his mother, is mixed-race).

The Stewart resignation caused consternation among his fellow journalists. All the comments I saw paid tribute to his career; and many said that the offence taken at his tweets was misplaced.

This was similar to my own, initial reaction. It seemed to me that the outrage was overblown. The Isabella quote from the play talks about humanity in general, rather than describing an individual as monkey-like.

However, reading comments from other people online have made me rethink that position. Those who saw the discussion unfold in real-time say that it was not just a single Shakespeare quote, but a mean-spirited and out-of-character pile-on. And when someone else wryly drew attention to the ‘ape’ slur embedded with the quote, Mr Stewart posted an emoji in response, suggesting he was aware of, and indifferent to, the offence he might cause. Continue reading “What We Talk About When We Talk About Alastair Stewart”

Peak Podcast and the Purpose of Online Publishing

Quiet Mics Live On Air
‘On air’ lamp in a studio at BBC New Broadcasting House

Much hilarity on social media about this New York Times article about an aspiring writer who set up a lacklustre podcast.

Each week, the friends, neither of whom had professional experience dispensing advice, met in a free room at the local library and recorded themselves chatting with an iPhone 5.  “We assumed we’d be huge, have affiliate marketing deals and advertisements,” Ms. Mandriota said.

We’ve hit ‘peak podcast,’ apparently and everyone is getting in on the podcasting game – especially anyone who wants to be considered an ‘expert’ in some field or other. Continue reading “Peak Podcast and the Purpose of Online Publishing”

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”

Perpetuation

Happy New Year everyone.

I retweeted this earlier.

https://twitter.com/SpillerOfTea/status/1079026065958453248

The U.K. spent the dying days of 2018 in a panic about a so-called ‘migrant crisis’ even though the numbers of people involved are dwarfed by those affected by the food bank crisis, the housing crisis… and lots of other crises.

And yet the media and politicians were all motivated enough to spend countless column inches and broadcast hours on the issue of a few migrant boats coming to our shores, filled with people who want to contribute to our society because their own is dangerous, dysfunctional and/or non-existent.

We are told repeatedly that the Brexit vote of 2016 was ‘about immigration.’ Among those who opposed the vote, many blame the fact that the ‘threat’ from immigration (legal and illegal) was relentlessly touted by vote-seeking, populist politicians, and racist tabloid hacks. This feels true to me.

Why then, do we allow the news agenda to be set for us in this way? Why do we allow the manipulation to continue? Why, when the problem was adequately diagnosed so many years ago, cannot it not be countered? Why is our opposition to this pernicious messaging so inadequate? Continue reading “Perpetuation”

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.