We need to talk about history

On the hottest day of the year, the professional team at Index was due to have an in-person brainstorming session about what might come our way next and what we needed to be prepared for. Our away day quickly became a virtual session with everyone melting in the heat.

In the midst of the conversation, one of my brilliant team members described one part of her work, that on SLAPPs (strategic lawsuits against public participation), as challenging reputation laundering. While that’s exactly what she’s been doing, I haven’t been able to move on from that phrase.

As unimpeded access to information becomes the norm in democracies in the 21st century, it might be easy to assume that rewriting history to agree with your own world view would be almost impossible. It feels, however, increasingly naive to believe that immediate access to this sheer volume of news and information is actually protecting truth. We face misinformation and propaganda campaigns at a state actor level, single issue activists, the misuse of libel laws and the increasing use of SLAPPs, as well as outright lies by bad faith actors, making it difficult to determine the reality of a situation.

This is compounded when people are ashamed of their history or don’t have the tools to talk about it.

Which brings me to my holiday last week. I had a wonderful break in Barcelona with my partner, doing all the tourist stuff you do on a city break. But by the third day, it became clear that there was one thing that no one was talking about – the Spanish Civil War. The Barcelona picture book in our room didn’t mention it. The plaques around the city missed out great swathes of Barcelona’s history from 1936 until the mid 1970s. The civil war wasn’t even touched upon at the Maritime Museum or either of the two cathedrals we visited, which were sites of some of the revolts. And the city open-top bus tour (the ultimate tourist experience) mentioned neither Franco nor the fact that the city had been the site of some of the most violent clashes in the civil war. In fact, it didn’t even mention the civil war.

Our response was to read more and to join the Walking Museum of the Spanish Civil War in Barcelona (which was brilliant).  But the more we read and the more we walked, the more I couldn’t move on. As we ate on La Ramblas, I watched tourists from around the world having an amazing time, but I wondered how many of them knew its history. In 1936, this was the site of a street battle where people were killed feet from where we now sat because they were adamantly fighting for democracy and freedom. When we walked past the Moka coffee shop, I wondered how many people eating a pastry realised that George Orwell had taken refuge there. And when we went to the anarchist bookshop (obviously required shopping on holiday), I wondered how many people walking past realised that its former staff led the fight against Franco’s fascists in the city.

After the fall of Franco, the Spanish decided that it was too difficult and too divisive to engage in a peace and reconciliation process. Instead, most political parties agreed to draw a line in the sand and move on, ignoring their immediate past. My experiences last week suggest that at least for corporate Spain that remains true, but the political reality for Spaniards is apparently now a little different. The whereabouts are still unknown of 114,000 people who disappeared under Franco’s regime, and their grandchildren want to know what happened to them. Now, there is a growing memory movement. Because political leaders failed to agree on an established factual version of Franco’s regime, there are now increasing tensions between the political left and the right as to what really happened, with revisionism and denialism an increasing theme in mainstream Spanish politics.

What I witnessed in Barcelona was not only an example of attempted reputation laundering – it was an effort to run from a country’s past, which I truly believe is impossible. But that’s only impossible because of us – the rest of us.  We have to study and understand atrocities from the past and make sure that the truth will out. It is our ultimate responsibility as people who campaign to protect freedom of expression.

A new chance to protect freedom of expression online

“Unintended consequences”, “ideologically incoherent”, “won’t change culture or make us safer”.

I have written all these words and many more about the British Government’s Online Safety Bill.  Index on Censorship has spent the last eighteen months campaigning against the worst excesses of the Online Safety Bill and how it would undermine freedom of expression online.

Our lines have been clear:

1. What is legal to say offline should be legal online.

2. End to end encryption should not be undermined.

3. Online anonymity needs to be protected.

The current proposals that were progressing through the British Parliament undermined each of these principles and were going to set a new standard of speech online which would have led to speech codes, heavily censored platforms, no secure online messaging and a threat to online anonymity which would have undermined dissidents living in repressive regimes.

So honestly, I am relieved that the government has, at almost the last minute, paused the legislation.

I am not opposed to regulation, I do not for a second believe that the internet is a nice place to spend time and nor would I advocate that there shouldn’t be many more protections for children and those who are vulnerable online.  We do need regulation to limit children’s exposure to illegal and inappropriate content but we need to do it in such a way that protects all of our rights.

This legislation, in its current iteration, failed to do that, it was a disaster for freedom of expression online.  The proposed “Legal but Harmful’ category of speech would have led to over deletion by online platforms on a scale never seen before.  Algorithms aren’t people and frankly they will struggle to identify nuance, context or satire or even regional colloquialisms.  With fines and the threat of prison sentences, platforms will obviously err on the side of caution and the unintended consequence would be mass deletion.

So today, we welcome the fact that the legislation has been paused and we call on the new prime minister and the next secretary of state to think again in the autumn about what we are actually trying to achieve when we regulate online platforms.  Because honestly, we won’t be able to make the internet nicer by waving a magic wand and removing everything unpleasant – we need to be more imaginative in our approach and consider the wider cultural and educational impact.

So, as I have said in the media overnight, this is a fundamentally broken bill – the next prime minister needs a total rethink.  It would give tech executives like Nick Clegg and Mark Zuckerberg massive amounts of control over what we all can say online, would make the UK the first democracy in the world to break encrypted messaging apps, and it would make people who have experienced abuse online less safe by forcing platforms to delete vital evidence.

Let’s start again.

New legislation could see universities forced to protect freedom of speech (Daily Express)

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Index on Censorship CEO Ruth Smeeth added her thoughts to proposed legislation to protect free speech in UK universities.

The legislation known as the Freedom of Speech (Universities) Bill 2019-21, proposed by former Brexit secretary David Davis, had its first reading on 19 January.

According to the UK Parliament website, the bill will “place a duty on universities to promote freedom of speech; to make provision for fining universities that do not comply with that duty; and for connected purposes”.

In the Daily Express, Smeeth said: “Universities are the home of debate and investigation in society and should always be a home for exploring new and controversial ideas. We must ensure free speech exists on campus.”[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

UK lawyers uneasy about plan to prosecute hate speech at home (The Guardian)

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Ruth Smeeth, Index’s CEO, explained her criticism of the proposed removal of the “dwelling” privacy exemption currently in UK law.

The change would mean a legal grey area where people could theoretically be prosecuted for something they say in their own homes.

“We need to have a proper national debate if we are going to start putting restrictions on language like this. There could be unintended consequences. People have a right to debate issues at home. If someone reads from Mein Kampf at home because they are studying it, would they get reported to the police? Where do you draw the line between intellectual curiosity and crime?”[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]