Trying to sanitise our online lives through regulation will just mask tensions

Last weekend I made an error. I posted a photo on my personal social media account of some political campaigning I’d done. As a former MP, it would have surprised no one. It was the very essence of unremarkable. Yet the response this picture of six smiling friends generated was extraordinary, both in its ferocity and deeply hateful nature.

I’m not going to use the privilege that my role gives me to list the attacks in any detail.  Index is not my personal hobby horse; we aren’t party political, and work with stakeholders across the world who share our commitment to the liberal value of free expression, regardless of their personal politics. This of course means that people have the absolute right to express themselves as they see fit – including their views about me.

But here’s the rub. Because just as someone has the right to say something, or more often than not type something, doesn’t mean that the target of their comments is obliged to hear it – or read it. People have the right to speak; what they do not have is the right to be heard by the target of their ire.So when people exercise their right to criticise those in the public eye, it’s important for all those involved in the conversation to understand that when a line is crossed and abuse becomes threats, laws are being broken. And this has consequences.

The furore my innocuous tweet generated was a timely reminder of quite how horrible online discourse can become, and quite how quickly. A pile-on sees “banter” morph seamlessly into abuse, from which seep the inevitable threats. It is a pattern as old as social media itself, and is all the more common for women in the public eye, especially those who come from a minority community.

Rarely a week goes by when I am not tempted to shut all my accounts down, turn off my access and with it, mute the hate. But I am then reminded of the good that can come from social media – knowing that your friends and family are safe in the midst of a crisis, being able to reach out to former friends and colleagues, and of course being able to seek help when you need it. For Index, it is also an invaluable tool in not only shining a light on the actions of repressive regimes, but of amplifying the stories of dissidents with stories that demand to be heard. it is also a literal lifeline when communicating with correspondents and sources when no other platform is available.

All of which makes moves by governments in the UK and further afield to regulate our online space a minefield unlike any other. The British government is currently legislating to make our online world “safer”. The Canadians and Australians are doing the same, as is the European Union.

My overriding concern is that we are witnessing governments trying to legislate for cultural change. And this is a recipe for failure before any law makes it onto the statute books.

Trying to limit debate and sanitise our online lives through regulation simply masks the tensions, divisions and prejudices that exist in our societies rather than tackling the underlying causes. This is not a counsel of despair, nor a position that says regulation shouldn’t exist. Of course more can be done to make us all safer online, but we need to find the right balance in order to protect ourselves and those that we care about. We need to learn how to use the platforms properly, harnessing the indisputable good of social media while limiting our exposure to the bad. We also need to decide as citizens how we want to manage this space and – perhaps most crucially of all – who should do it. If we decide collectively that our online conversation needs more regulation than a visit to the pub (hint– it shouldn’t), then I for one would like our democratically elected politicians to determine where those lines are drawn, not an algorithm written by a Tech giant or an anonymous regulator.

Which brings me back to the weekend. My mistake wasn’t campaigning, or even tweeting about it, but rather not using the tools available to me to manage my social media and how I wanted to use it. I failed to protect myself. In an ideal world I shouldn’t have to – but my reality online is far from ideal, so going forward I will be limiting how I use social media (again) and how I engage with people. The reality is this doesn’t limit anyone else’s free expression, only my own. Which is my choice.

I run one of the oldest free expression organisations in the UK. We are 50 years old next month. I spend my professional life campaigning to make sure that the persecuted are heard – that people are not silenced for expressing themselves, protecting people’s right to have an opinion regardless of whether it is popular or not. I won’t spend my time defending the indefensible – the bullies, the racists, the misogynists, and the trolls. They have a right to speak but I have the right to ignore them, which is what they deserve.

Governments should not be policing thought

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Index does not believe the UK needs new laws to protect women from abuse and violence.

The UK already has dozens of laws on its books that make criminal the kind of abusive actions that are disproportionately targeted at women: rape, harassment, stalking. Despite this, the most egregious crimes against women frequently go unpunished. In the case of rape, conviction rates are woeful. A report published in 2017 found that only one in 14 rapes reported in England and Wales ended in a conviction.

Creating new laws that make misogyny a “hate crime” will do little to change this, as lawyers argued earlier this week. Nor are they likely to help change attitudes. In fact they can do the opposite.

Laws that criminalise speech are deeply problematic. In a free society, thoughts should not be criminal no matter how hateful they are. Yet laws that make “hate” criminal – in a well-meaning but misplaced effort to protect minorities and persecuted groups – are on the rise.

We should all be worried about this. As the US delegation noted in a United Nations Human Rights Council meeting in 2015, hate speech laws are increasingly being abused by those in power to target political opponents or to persecute the very minority groups such laws are meant to protect.

In addition, they do little to improve tolerance or treatment of such groups: “Such laws, including blasphemy laws, tend to reinforce divisions rather than promote societal harmony,” the US delegation said. “The presence of these laws has little discernible effect on reducing actual incidences of hate speech. In some cases such laws actually serve to foment violence against members of minority groups accused of expressing unpopular viewpoints.”

As if to prove their point, Russia used the same meeting to praise hate speech laws and the need to police hate speech in Ukraine so as not to ignite “nationalistic fires.”

Tackling hate requires changes in society’s attitude. Some of those changes need laws – such as those we rightly already have to outlaw discrimination in the workplace. Some require major changes in our institutions to the structures and practices that reinforce inequality. But prohibiting speech, or policing thought, is not the way to do this. [/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1536237430689-ea8c7414-e758-3″ taxonomies=”6534″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

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.