Freedom of expression, or a very modern freakshow?
Katharine Quarmby: Free expression is important, but the vulnerable must be protected
25 Feb 10

Index on Censorship took a firm line on the conviction of three Google executives in Italy for violation of privacy yesterday, expressing its alarm and “horror” at the verdict and denouncing the court’s “flagrant disregard for free expression”.

The case had been brought by a disability charity, which claimed that Google was culpable for not gaining the consent of all parties in a video before it was uploaded to Google Video. The video showed a young disabled child being harassed and bullied. The charity also claimed that Google had been slow to react when asked to remove the clip.

As a journalist, I’m hardwired to defend freedom of expression — but this case is far more nuanced and complex than it first appears.
Here’s why. I was the first British journalist to investigate, and then break the story of the scope of disability hate crime in the UK. I wrote a major investigative report, Getting Away with Murder, on disability hate crime for the charity Scope, the UK Disabled People’s Council and the magazine Disability Now in 2008.

When we were drawing up recommendations we talked to law-makers about whether the law on incitement — particularly relating on inciting hatred using the internet — should be broadened to include crimes against disabled people. At that time I was unable to find evidence that the internet was being used routinely to mock, taunt, bully or harass disabled children and adults — and to incite others to similar acts. So I didn’t push for broadening of legislation to cover it. That was right at that time.

That’s changed. Google, YouTube (also owned by Google), Facebook and other sites have, just in the last two years, become major broadcasters and publishers — with unfiltered content being uploaded by the public every day. But these broadcasters and publishers are almost completely unregulated — unlike terrestrial broadcasters, print outlets and publishers.

The public has realised that those sites can be used to create virtual reality freakshows — and disabled people are being used to star in them, against their will. For example, Christine Lakinski, a disabled woman, collapsed on her doorstep in Hartlepool in 2007. A crowd gathered. Anthony Anderson urinated on her. His friends covered her with shaving foam. Then, clearing space on one mobile phone, a man filmed the incident, yelling: “This is YouTube material!”. He was arrested before the film could be uploaded.

In another incident, this time in Melbourne, Australia, around the same time, a group of high school students assaulted a disabled girl, urinated on her, set her hair on fire, sexually assaulted her and then posted their exploits on You Tube.

These incidents are becoming increasingly common — the internet has become the modern version of the medieval “freakshow”, in which the “village idiot” was not only expected to labour in the parish fields for the day, but also “perform” for the amusement of the community. Later, people would visit Bedlam and other asylums for their amusement.

Disabled teenagers, who create Facebook pages to find friends because they are so often socially isolated, find that their pages are then used to bully them.

We need to walk a line between protecting the human rights of disabled people not to be mocked, taunted or targeted (as indeed we do minority ethnic groups and children, for instance, on the net), and freedom of expression. I don’t think anyone believes that paedophiles have the right to enjoy the freedom of expression to post images of children being abused on the net. So what about the rights of disabled people?

Just a month ago on Channel 4’s Big Brother’s Big Mouth, ex-footballer and actor Vinnie Jones mocked presenter Davina McCall, saying that she walked like a “retard”. Channel 4 was initially unrepentant, claiming that participants had the right to freedom of expression “without censure”. Later, after numerous complaints by disabled people and charities, the broadcaster apologised, and cut the offending item from its recorded programme. The complaints have now gone to Ofcom.

But there is no Ofcom in cyberspace — yet — so virtual broadcasters and publishers must act responsibly and quickly. And we, as journalists and policy-makers need to discuss how to balance the human rights of disabled people to be protected from incitement to violence against the right to freedom of expression. Let’s start talking.