It’s fair to assume that you are something of an internet user – you are reading this for a start. So what are your feelings about the possibility that the freedom of using the internet you now have could be about to vanish?
The government has just published the ‘Online Harms White Paper’, which details what it would like to do to reduce or even eliminate entirely the risks associated with the possible harm that people might come to by using the web. Or for that matter, the harm some people might do to others by their misuse of it.
This is a subject that I have written of before, both here on KJM Today and in my book, ‘Comments of a Common Man’. I make no apologies for doing so again, although this time with the benefit of some input from the government in the form of the proposals contained in that White Paper. As I wrote in my book, we (supposedly at least) live in a country that gives as a matter of right to its citizens, freedom. The freedom to come and go as we please; to read what we wish; write what we wish and say what we wish; the right to live our lives free from undue interference - meaning interference from each other as well as the state and its agents.
That right includes, as just said, freedom of speech, freedom of expression and the freedom of the press. Yet (and again as I point out in my book) since 1997 two things have been used more than any others to restrict and take away the precious freedoms we enjoy. Much of these restrictions have been done in quite a subtle way, or play on the emotions of ordinary people. These two things are terrorism and child protection.
Terrorism is used on an almost weekly basis, and sometimes more often, to justify why things we used to do are now, at best, severely restricted and at worst, banned altogether. Every time a deranged individual commits an act of murder, with several victims or one, it is routinely described as an ‘Act of Terror’, which is an immediate cue for a government minister to announce the possibility (or probability) of yet more restrictions.
With the recent, and entirely understandable, disquiet over self-harm by teenagers, there has been a reaction from the government that suggests it wants to punish social media platforms for the content they allow to be posted.
As I said the emotions are completely understandable but there are immediate problems, if that is, one stops to think. Why is the internet, social media and, according to the White Paper, news websites (like KJM Today) being targeted so heavily?
The answer is that it gains good headlines in mainstream print media - most of the time. This time, those headlines are not quite so favourable. They are not so because the White Paper paves the way for a government of the UK to close down completely websites of which it does not approve. The Online Harms White Paper proposes a sweeping range of regulation that is hoped will put right problems like terrorist propaganda, child exploitation, ‘fake’ news and trolling. The problem with it is that trolling can already be punished by existing law; so can fake news; so can child exploitation and so can terrorist propaganda. So why do we need new laws?
The government, backed by enthusiasts of the proposals, say that web giants like Google, Facebook and Twitter are not doing enough to prevent and remove potentially harmful content. The problem however, is that the new proposals contain enough leeway to a future government to go much further than simply imposing fines on the web’s big players. In a section that is almost a replica of something from George Orwell’s book, 1984, the White Paper states that the Home Secretary in office at the time would sign off the rules on terror and child exploitation. That might seem like a good idea but to concentrate what amounts to powers of censorship in the hands of one individual has been shown time and again throughout history to be a bad idea. Give any censor an inch and a mile will be taken.
The White Paper has a one-size-fits-all approach and would hand immense new powers to a new regulator, Ofweb, to fine, restrict and ultimately ban any website deemed to be non-compliant, no matter how big or small it might be. This means that the same rules that apply to massive companies like Facebook also apply to any small one that allows users to post comments.
Let’s look at this from a slightly different perspective. Take Facebook; the success of it is because it allows its users to post un-moderated, uncensored and unrestricted comments on any subject. The vast, almost unimaginably huge, majority of its users post entirely lawful material on anything from humour to their activities at their local knitting club to photographs of whatever their interest might be to what is in the news and yes, it allows users to criticise governments. What is missing from the government’s proposals is responsibility of the individual user.
While Facebook does, and must, take some responsibility for what appears on it, the ultimate responsibility lies with those who post material to begin with. Whereas I for example, might well post an acerbic comment about Brexit and the actions of MPs (and I have done), others might reply voicing their disagreement (and they have). But what I have not done is use insulting language directed at any one person. If I (or anybody else) use Facebook or Twitter to post insulting remarks that are gratuitous in comment and language – this happens on Twitter on a daily basis – then it seems to me that existing law allows the user to be pursued and an appropriate punishment imposed.
Yet bad language by itself, calling somebody a **** or a ******* ******** does not break the laws of libel. Making an insulting comment about somebody on social media does not necessarily mean that such a remark is a published statement damaging to a person’s reputation. When speaking, one is not necessarily guilty of slander merely because one person calls another a ****wit. Yes, such statements are offensive but in the UK not only do we have the right to offend but also the right to be offended – and the right to reply if we so wish. The best option when insulted is often to walk away rather than rise to that insult but, once again, there already exist laws that can, if appropriate, punish insulting behaviour or language. There is not a pressing need to censor Facebook, or for that matter Twitter either. Because that is what the White Paper essentially proposes – censorship.
There is some significance in the fact that no other Western democratic state has come up with similar proposals and left as they are, while the present government might not come across as a draconian oppressor of the people, there is nothing to stop a future government from being just that - and being so to further its own political ends.
The one thing that is missing from the White Paper, as I said above, is one of personal responsibility – that of those who post material to begin with. The difficulty lies in that Facebook, Twitter and the rest, all allow users to use fake names. Again as I have written before, on my Facebook and Twitter profiles, I use my real name. I have no reason or wish to do anything else. But a significant number of others do use a fake user name. Why?
This ability allows users to say what they like, in anyway they like, directed at whom they wish and in almost complete anonymity. As it happens, it is possible to trace a user, no matter what name they use and this has happened on numerous occasions. Nevertheless, as it stands for most, they remain unknown. What social media companies can do, and again have done, is remove the account of somebody who does misuse it. But there is nothing to stop such people from simply creating a new profile, with a new fake name. And they do, frequently.
This is where new legislation should start. There is no need for fake names. And it is something that web giants can do without being made to by law. That said, there is little reason why such a law could not be created anyway. Provided of course, it is framed in a way that allows a genuine pseudonym to be used and for the right reasons. For example, there are many books written by authors using a pseudonym but the real name is known to the publisher (and the taxman…). It’s not such a difficult thing to do – to open an account; 1) Real name and address. 2) Pseudonym if necessary. 3) Reason for pseudonym 4) Date of birth…and so on. If said user than misuses that profile, the details can be handed over to the appropriate authority.
Instead of this however, the UK now faces a future in which the state will decide what we say, read, hear and even think. And if you doubt this, go and get a copy of my book, ‘Comments of a Common Man’. Its only £9.99 and you can get it from Amazon.
Freedoms of speech and of the press are the lifeblood of any civilised society and the UK has led the way in securing both. Racist, sexist and other illegal content must always be condemned, found, removed and those who post it on the internet pursued and prosecuted.
But the way forward is not by the diktat of the state. Who decides what is acceptable or not? The Prime Minster Theresa May (or her successor) and the Tories? The Police? Jeremy Corbyn and Labour? The Judges on Strictly? A supposedly independent quango like Ofweb? Some other unknown, unelected and unaccountable state official? Or you?
However worthy the motive, all and any attempts to restrict freedom of expression inevitably result in more of the same subsequently. History has proved it. Defending media freedom – in all its forms – online is not easy. But there is always one thing more harmful than free speech; it’s opposite.
© Kevan James 2019.