An effective speech by comedian Sacha Baron Cohen on how social media companies have become “the greatest propaganda machine in history.”
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”
— English PEN (@englishpen) August 8, 2018
The propaganda website InfoWars has been banned from Facebook, the Apple iTunes podcasting platform, and Spotify. Most people have welcomed the fact that these technology companies have finally acted to enforce their own terms and conditions, though others (including, obviously, InfoWars itself) says that this is an infringement of free speech.
I was invited onto the BBC Victoria Derbyshire TV programme today to discuss the issue, alongside Karin Robinson from Democrats Abroad; and Neil Heslin, whose son was murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and who has been taunted and harassed by the InfoWars website and its supporters. Continue reading “Discussing InfoWars and Free Speech on the BBC Victoria Derbyshire Programme”
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”
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 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 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.’
I posted this on Medium last week to almost deathly silence. I thought it would be something people might share but clearly I’ve not built up enough of a network.
One aspect of the Internet that makes me a little melancholy is the fact that so many people have to put the same phrase on their social media bios: “These are my own views and not that of my employer” or variations of that theme.
It’s sad because the Internet was supposed to be a place where people have the freedom to explore new ideas, identities and friendships. Instead, our online discourse is polluted by the anxieties and the obtuse reasoning of the corporate world.
The all-to-common “personal opinions” disclaimer reminds us how our freedom of thought and of personality is curtailed. My heart sinks whenever I read such words, because I know that the person who is writing them is on their guard, insuring themselves against some future misunderstanding or invasion of their work life into their personal space.
And yet we need such disclaimers, because on the Internet there are a remarkable number of people who are happy to conflate the views of an individual with that of the organisations they work for. Continue reading “The Internet urgently needs a new ‘personal opinions’ icon”
I’m really enjoying Periscope, the new app from Twitter that allows live broadcasts direct from your phone. It was launched very soon after its rival Meerkat and has, I think, better sharing and comment functionality.
Both apps, however, offer something utterly compelling — a live window into someone else’s world. In 5 minutes on Periscope, you can jump accross continents, watching forest fires in the Rockies, a sunset over the Pont Neuf in Paris, dinner with a family in Pakistan, or a toddler in Canberra learning to walk. Its magic, in the Arthur C Clarke sense.
With other forms of communication, the most fascinating developments come when the users push the platform in ways the developers had not anticipated. For example, the @ and # functionality in Twitter was something developed by the users and not by Twitter. Continue reading “#Periscope needs a ‘handover’ function”
There’s a new app in town, called Meerkat. It allows you to stream live video direct from your mobile phone or tablet, with the link appearing in your Twitter stream.
Dan Pfeiffer, a former senior advisor to Barack Obama, writes:
If 2004 was about Meetup, 2008 was about Facebook, and 2012 was about Twitter, 2016 is going to be about Meerkat (or something just like it).
(He is of course talking about US politics). I wonder whether that’s true though: I fancy there may be a premium on asynchronicity—sending messages to people to read when they have time, rather than in the moment. How much value is there in This Is Happening Literally Right Now over the Twitter news model of This Just Happened? Meerkat does not seem to have any catch-up functionality—if you click on a link to a stream that has ended, there’s no way to view it back. Other services like Ustream and Google Hangouts do offer that functionality and I bet the Meerkat devs are beavering away (or whatever it is a meerkat does) to get this feature into the app. Continue reading “Why not do an extra leaders’ debate via #Meerkat?”