Caitlin Moran: a response

Writer Caitlin Moran (Image Demotix/Ken Jack)

Writer Caitlin Moran (Image Demotix/Ken Jack)

Times columnist Caitlin Moran’s blog post on Twitter, threats and free speech this morning has gone viral. As I type, the page has crashed due to traffic overload, and apparently taken the entire Random House website with it.

The past week, online at least, has been dominated by discussions of misogynist abuse and threats on Twitter. I’m fighting a losing battle here in trying not to refer to this behaviour as “trolling”, but I think it’s still important to call abuse and threats what they are, rather than giving them a whole new category because they occur online. Calling it “trolling” undermines both trolling itself, in some ways a noble tradition, and what’s actually happening, which is women being threatened with rape by strangers.

Moran explains the exhausting and scary feeling of being attacked on Twitter, and the despair of being told that nothing can be done about it.

She goes on to quote Telegraph tech blogger Mic Wright, who earlier this week suggested that “This isn’t a technology issue – this is a societal issue”, suggesting he was simply dismissive of the idea that something should be done about misogyny online. Mic’s a friend, and a thoughtful writer. I don’t think he’s nearly as off-hand as Moran suggests, but I’ll leave it to you to read what he actually wrote. (While you’re at the Telegraph site, read Marta Cooper’s excellent piece as well)

Moran suggests “a fairly infallible rule: that anyone who says ‘Hey, guys – what about freedom of speech!’ hasn’t the faintest idea what ‘freedom of speech’ actually means.”

This, I’m afraid, is where it gets personal. As someone who may as well change his name by deed poll to “Hey, guys – what about freedom of speech!”, I can’t help feel Moran’s talking about me. And I think I’ve been a bit more considered, even while shouting about free speech.

Moran says:

“There is no such thing as ‘freedom of speech’ in this country. Since 1998, we’ve had Article 10 of the European Convention on “freedom of expression”, but that still outlaws – amongst many things – obscenity, sedition, glorifying terrorism, incitement of racial hatred, sending articles which are indecent or grossly offensive with an intent to cause anxiety or distress, and threatening, abusive or insulting words like to cause harassment, alarm or distress.”

Well, kind of. Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights says this:

1. Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. This article shall not prevent States from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises.

2. The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.

(Part 2 is kind of depressing, isn’t it?)

What Moran categorises as being outlawed by Article 10 are in fact various other laws, most of which have been around in some form or other long before the 1998 Human Rights Act which established the ECHR in UK law. Laws such as the Communications Act and the Public Order Act which, Lord knows, have their problems, not least for social media users. Ask Paul Chambers.

Moran then says:

“As you can see, if you are suggesting that you are allowed to threaten someone on Twitter with rape or death under “freedom of speech”, then you do not – as predicted – have any idea what “freedom of speech” means. Because it’s prosecutable.”

Two things: One, I’m not sure anyone really has been shouting “free speech for rape threats”. Two, it is possible to shout “freedom of speech” even when things are prosecutable. In fact, it’s what free speech campaigners such as Index, English PEN and Article 19 spend most of our time doing. All governments protect free speech “within the law”. Usually, the law is the problem, as we’ve seen with issues from England’s libel laws right up to Russia’s brand new anti “gay propaganda” law.

Moran identifies a certain cynicism in people who say abuse and threats are simply part and parcel of the web (“NOTHING CAN CHANGE. THE INTERNET JUST IS WHAT IT IS!”) saying what they really mean is that they don’t want things to change.

This strand certainly exists. The old-style keyboard warrior who thinks the web is strictly for arguing and not cat videos and getting strangers to help you with the crossword, or generally doing nice things and learning more about other people and places. The internet, for them is SERIOUS BUSINESS, and girls and pansies who can’t take the heat should get out of the kitchen. Or go back to the kitchen. Definitely something about kitchens.

But there is also a good reason to be wary, or at least hesitant, about calls for changing the web. A lot of time spent defending free speech is not actually about defending what people say, but defending the space in which they can say it (I’ll refrain from misquoting Voltaire here). It may be idealistic, but we genuinely believe that given the space and the opportunity to discuss ideas openly, without fear of retribution, we’ll figure out how to do things better. Censorship holds society back. In fact, it’s the litmus test of a society being held back.

When the cry goes up that “something must be done”, it’s normally exactly the right time to put the brakes on and think very hard about what we actually want to happen. The web is wonderful, and possibly the greatest manifestation of the free speech space we’ve ever had, but it’s also susceptible to control. Governments such as those in China and Iran spend massive resources on controlling the web, and do quite a good job of it. Other states simply slow the connection, making the web a frustrating rather than liberating experience. Some governments simply pull the plug. The whole of YouTube has been blocked in Pakistan for almost a year now, because something had to be done about blasphemous videos. Last month David Cameron announced his plans to take all the bad things away, after the Daily Mail ran a classic something-must-be-done campaign against online porn.

There are, as Moran rightly points out, laws against threatening people with rape. Perhaps the police and the CPS should take these threats more seriously (I only say “perhaps” because I don’t know exactly what the various police forces have been doing about the various threats in the past week, not because I think it’s arguable that the police and CPS should take rape threats less seriously), but I’m wary of demanding more action on things that are already illegal. Some of the proposed Twitter fixes are interesting, but their implications need to be thought through, particularly how they could be used against people we like as well as people we don’t like.

After outlining her support for a boycott of Twitter on Sunday 4 August, Moran concludes:

“The main compass to steer by, as this whole thing rages on, doubtless for some months to come, is this: to maintain the spirit that the internet was conceived and born in – one of absolute optimism that the future will be better than the past. And that the future will be better than the past because internet is the best shot we’ve had yet for billions of people to communicate equally, and peacefully, and with the additional ability to post pictures of thatched houses that look ‘surprised.’”

On this, I agree absolutely. In fact, I pretty much wrote the same thing last week:

The current debate in the UK portrays the web overwhelmingly as the habitat of trolls, predators, bullies and pornmongers. And that, plus the police are watching too, ready to arrest you for saying the wrong thing.

I can’t help feeling that all this doom-mongering could be self fulfilling. If we keep thinking of the web as the badlands, that’s how it will be, like a child beset by endless criticism and low expectations. We need to talk more about the positive side of life online – the conversations, the friendships, the opportunities – if we’re going to get the most out of it.

We do need to protect and promote the good parts of life online. But we should be very careful of the idea that we can simply block out the negative aspects without having a knock-on effect. We’re in uncharted territory. The wrong turn could be very, very costly.

David Cameron’s King Canute moment


The Prime Minister’s touching belief that he can clean up the web with technology is misguided and even dangerous, says Padraig Reidy

Announcing plans to clean up the internet on Monday morning, David Cameron invoked King Canute, saying he had been warned “You can as easily legislate what happens on the Internet as you can legislate the tides.”

The story of Canute and the sea is that the king wanted to demonstrate his own fallability to fawning fans. But David Cameron today seems to want to tell the world that he can actually eliminate everything that’s bad from the web. Hence we had “rape porn”, child abuse images, extreme pornography and the issue of what children view online all lumped together in the one speech. All will be solved, and soon, through the miracle of technology.

Cameron points out that “the Internet is not a sideline to ‘real life’ or an escape from ‘real life’; it is real life.” In this much he’s right. But he then goes on to discuss the challenge of child abuse and rape images in almost entirely technological terms.

I’ve written before about the cyber-utopianism inherent in the arguments of many who are pro filtering and blocking: there is an absolute faith in the ability of technology to tackle deep moral and ethical issues; witness Cameron’s imploring today, telling ISPs to “set their greatest minds” to creating perfect filters. Not philosophers, mind, but programmers.

Thus, as with so many discussions on the web, the idea that if something is technologically possible, then there is no reason not to do it, prevails. It’s simply a matter of writing the right code rather than thinking about the real implications of what one is doing. This was the same thinking that led to Cameron’s suggestion of curbs on social media during the riots of 2011.

The Prime Minister announced that, among other things, internet service providers will be forced to provide default filters blocking sites. This is a problem both on a theoretical and practical level; theoretically as it sets up a censored web as a standard, and practically because filters are imperfect, and block much more than they are intended to. Meanwhile, tech-savvy teenagers may well be able to circumvent them, meaning parents are left with a false sense of security.

The element of choice and here is key; parents should actively choose a filter, knowing what that entails, rather than passively accepting, as currently proposed by the Prime Minister. Engaging with that initial thought about what is viewed in your house could lead to greater engagement and discussion about children’s web use – which is the best way to protect them.

It is proposed that a blacklist of search terms be created. As Open Rights Group points out, it will simply mean new terms will be thought up, resulting in an endless cat and mouse game, and also a threat of legitimate content being blocked. What about, say, academic studies into porn? Or violence against women? Or, say, essays on Nabokov’s Lolita?

Again, there is far too much faith in the algorithm, and far too little thinking about the core issue: tracking down and prosecuting the creators of abuse images. The one solid proposal on this front is the creation of a central secure database of illegal images from which police can work, though the prime minister’s suggestion that it will “enable the industry to use the digital hash tags from the database” does not fill one with confidence that he is entirely across this issue.
The vast majority of trade in abuse images comes on darknets and through criminal networks, not through simple browser searches. This is fairly easily proved when one, to use the Prime Minister’s example, searches for “child sex” on Google. Unsurprisingly, one is not immediately bombarded with page after page of illegal child abuse images.

As Daily Telegraph tech blogger Mic Wright writes: “The unpleasant fact is that the majority of child sexual abuse online is perpetrated beyond even the all-seeing eye of Google.”

The impulses to get rid of images of abuse, and shield children from pornography, are not bad ones. But to imagine that this can be done solely by algorithms creating filters, blacklists and blocking, rather than solid support for police work on abuse images, and proper, engaged debate on the moral and ethical issues of what we and our children can and cannot view online, really is like imagining one can command the tides.

Jimmy Savile, power and libel

Allegations about the late Jimmy Savile’s abuse of young girls have led to a curious binary set of reactions. On the one hand, we are shocked and appalled. On the other hand, we knew all along.

There were always rumours, of course. Journalist Lynn Barber, in a 1990 interview, put the allegation to Savile: “What people say is that you like little girls.”

But a mixture of fear of privacy and libel laws, and the censorious pressure that prominent, well-connected figures can impose not just on weak and insecure young girls and their families, meant the rumours were never properly confronted. Even the BBC’s Newsnight would not broadcast the allegations .

Former tabloid editor Brian Hitchen wrote yesterday that England’s libel laws “too often help make those like Savile untouchable.”

Even now, the threat of libel suits could hang over newspapers seeking to further investigate allegations made by women who testified in ITV’s documentary about Savile.  

The law should not be a tool for the powerful to silence the weak. And this is all about power: men over women, celebrity over the unknown, rich over poor.

As more stories emerge about the likes of Savile and Gary Glitter, I cannot help but compare it with  the widespread clerical abuse that gripped the state of Ireland for many years. The enormity of this child Gulag has been revealed in a series of official reports in the past few years, with grim testimony given as victims finally found a space where they could speak of their experiences.

The reaction to those reports was revulsion. But it came from that same place of knowing and not knowing as the reaction to the Savile story. There cannot have been a person in Ireland who did not know that the church covered up child abuse. But we were reassured that they were bad apples, and it felt wrong to complain when there were so many good priests who did so much for our spiritual and physical wellbeing.

Savile pulled the same trick. How could you attack a man who did so much for the community?

In even the worst totalitarian regime, rumours about the rulers can circulate below the censor’s radar. But it’s only when we can proclaim, on the record and with confidence, our doubts about the rich, famous and powerful, that we can actually bring about change.

Padraig Reidy is News Editor of Index on Censorship

More on libel:

Why it’s vital that the government act to protect free speech
Five ludicrous libel cases
Last chance to sign our petition to reform libel laws that stifle debate, curtail criticism and even endanger lives