If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter – George Washington
Read a news story just now which is very interesting, is a great foundation for a debate but one I find the tone somewhat worrying. You can read the full article here and I suggest you do, so as to give yourselves context of what I want to point out below, but for those that want the short synopsis, Maria Miller wants an overview and changes on laws relating to “internet abuse”.
“We need better laws and we need better enforcement. Government needs to stop allowing internet providers from hiding behind arguments about the protection of free speech,” – Maria Miller – Tory MP
The overarching theme here, whilst being legitimate in some areas, could have serious repercussions for what you can, and can not say online. We should be concerned about this. The main problem is, what actually constitutes abuse in the eyes of any law?
I don’t deny, that there is a lot of communication that goes on in the web which far crosses the line in terms of decency, and what is right. I regularly see politicians, reporters, bloggers, celebs and indeed everyday normal people, getting abuse which if not just down right crude and disgusting, sometimes actually crosses into the realm of threatening physical violence. This obviously can not be right or condoned.
In his latest article for example, Owen Jones reports having his actual address, Google street view image and even his bedroom window position published on Twitter with various threats of physical violence and encouragement to attack him.
His crime being that as a left wing advocate, his views clashed with the person making the threats.
Obviously completely outrageous that such a thing should occur, but there are, rightly, already laws against inciting, encouraging or committing physical violence in both the online and offline worlds, so do we need further laws against this? I have to wonder what the point of further laws covering laws we already have in place would be?
There is something that troubles me in that article too, and that is that Owen goes some lengths to portray abusive behaviour of this nature as solely the realm of the right wing inclined. Owen, I have news for you, it isn’t. There is a reason I remain anonymous online, and it certainly isn’t so I can abuse people with impunity.
So do I agree that we need laws about physical threats – yes. But not if they already covered by existing laws, unless they would add something of benefit to them.
Then Maria talks about the ability for children being able to access pornography, and from here on in is where it all starts getting a bit sketchy. Online threats and children being able to access porn are NOT the same thing, but for her argument she conflates them.
“While some will argue that taking down websites is the thin end of the wedge towards the erosion of free speech, I think the thin end of the wedge is that a 10-year-old can view pornography at the flick of a switch. I don’t think that is right. And there is still little policing of very abusive websites.”
Hmmm, taking down websites. Here we go. Maria is actually discussing taking down websites that are legal for anyone over the age of 18 to view, because children have access to them.
Do I think its right that young children should be looking at such images? No of course not, but their initial ability to access these sites lies with the parents, not with the government. This is the Conservative party – enemy of the nanny state, trying to be all Mary Poppins with the state.
At present the vast majority of internet service providers (ISPs) now actually require the account holder to phone up to ask to be allowed access to known sites containing “adult content” (that was a fun conversation wasn’t it?). Now of course there are a very small amount of porn sites that get around this, but it seems to me the ISPs are doing what they can. Why should those that wish to use porn sites in their sex life have that taken away, because some parents are not actively monitoring what their children are doing on the internet? Its not for the government to intervene on parenting at this point.
Before the internet was even a thing, as a young teenager I and thousands of others my age got our hands on some VHS cassettes containing porn, should the government have intervened in this? Gone in and shut down the shops that sold them, or should our parents, us children being their responsibility have hidden them better? I know the answer.
Obviously without question porn sites that advocate illegal activities of any description would fall outside of this argument. Again, being online shouldn’t (and doesn’t) exempt you from normal laws.
But what about being children’s ability to stream 18+ rated films, see gambling adverts, visit gambling sites, surf Netflix with inappropriate age content, shop at sites that allow them to buy age restricted products such as Amazon with impunity. Do we take these sites down too? If not why not? If so why so? Maybe we should just ban anyone under the age of 18 from the internet and be done with it?
Her final statement of note. Is on abuse and discrimination. Note that she has now conflated discrimination, threatening behaviour and children accessing sexual content as being the same evils…they are not.
“Homophobic, racist, sexist abuse online can actually stifle debate, lead to censorship – with some individuals not willing to say things that might provoke abuse.”
Ok this is where it gets really tricky and I think really scary. There is, I concede, an awful lot of this that happens online. What I would consider genuine racism, genuine sexism and genuine homophobia. However there is even more accusations of racism, sexism and homophobia where it simply doesn’t exist. Used simply, and ironically, to stifle debate.
If I had a quid for each time someone comments about a blog post I have published, calling me or its content “racist”, I’d be fairly rich. Yet oddly when I ask them to give me an exact sentence in any blog post I have published, or hand over my Twitter handle so they can look at any tweet I have ever made and ask them to point me to said racism, they never can. Because of course, I’m not, they just disagree with what I’ve said and don’t have any legitimate rebuttle.
Where is the line? Do we start banging up anyone reciting a passage from their particular religious book which denounces same sex relationships? Do we ban any discussions around a persons ethnicity – or is it just people of a certain colour? Does criticising someone’s religious persuasion (as many already seem to think) fall into racism – can we criticise Christianity, Islam, Hinduism as faiths, and their ideologies, or will that be banned? Can religious types criticise agnostics and atheists? Will some feminists get a visit from the plod for insinuating that the entire male contingent of the human population are misogynists?
If all of that is banned then what about other things we are not allowed to discriminate on the basis of? political persuasion? Half of the Guardians comment section are going to be up before the beak for calling people Tory Scum, half my Twitter followers closely behind for calling them hand wringing lefties. Or are those terms not “abuse”, does there need to be an expletive in there? Do we need to call someone something a couple of times, thrice, five times before it becomes abuse? – At this point are we just talking about online conversations any more?
Does “abuse” fall into the realms of “you offended somebody”.
The last bit is the clincher, because ladies and gents the internet is full of people that love to be offended. Go onto any video uploaded on Facebook. Any one you choose, about anything you want, and someone in the comments will be offended.
Its not the governments job to stop people being offended which is what they seem to want to do. Its also not their job to slowly erode what we can and can not discuss, which is what any laws passed under this disguise will be. ISPs are not hiding behind free speech, they are following it. To the letter.
People are allowed to disagree, people are allowed to and will argue about things. These arguments may get heated – they are allowed to insult each other to a reasonable point. I once called Douglas Carswell a cunt on Twitter because he voted to bomb Syria. He rightly blocked me, I had passed the point of reasonable. That was that. Had I done this 5 years down the line I might have ended up in front of a magistrate for “abuse”.
Because that is what these laws will eventually be used for isn’t it Miss Miller? To protect you lot from a the criticism you get, to stifle it and stop it. “Isms” will be found in every online comment, in every tweet, in every blog. People scared to offend.
But Miss Miller please don’t pretend its ISPs hiding behind free speech that is the problem. I strongly suspect Its you not liking the fact that we have so much of it.