Parallels from the world of football

Many years ago a major problem developed in England around the game of professional football, or “soccer” as it is known by some. Gangs of men, mainly younger men in their late teens or early twenties, started going to matches intent principally on fighting with supporters from the other side.  Their interest in the actual game appeared to be somewhere between minimal and non-existent. Violence is what attracted them.

While the fighting that took place in or around football grounds was assumed to be alcohol-fuelled it was otherwise thought to be largely spontaneous or opportunistic  in nature. Wrong.  Soon turned out much of it was planned and premeditated, and not infrequently the encounters were deliberately prearranged, if not quite choreographed by “crews” from both sides. Either way not only were a number of the combatants severely injured, sometimes killed, many perfectly innocent people  – including children and the elderly  – who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time –  could themselves get caught up on the periphery of it and be badly hurt or killed. If not that they were most certainly put in great fear for life and limb.

I speak from personal experience. It happened to me twice. Once at Tottenham and once in Sheffield. In the Sheffield case, moreover, I was nowhere near the ground when the incident took place. I was in a busy shopping precinct in the middle of the city. Suddenly a group of people ahead of me who were wearing my team’s colours were jumped on, rapidly scattering the terrified nearby shoppers and yours truly.

How many people were involved?

In total how many of these football hooligans were there in the country? I would be surprised if the number ever exceeded a few thousand against the several millions who used to go to games completely peaceably solely to enjoy the spectacle and to cheer on their local heroes.

Yet the impact of the thugs’ behaviour was enormous. It is the reason I pretty much stopped going to away games completely. Every away supporter – evidenced by wearing your team’s scarf or a hat or being with or near anyone who was – was viewed by the local police as a potential pugilist. You could be searched before you went into the ground or got on the coach to go to the game, your footwear might be carefully inspected, you would be locked into the stadium at the end of the game and forced to wait an hour or more before being allowed to go – escorted  and marshalled – to the train station or bus park for the journey back.

Disproportionate response?

Clubs started selling their allocation of away tickets to registered (identified)  members of their official supporters’ club and if, not having managed to obtain an away supporter’s ticket you nonetheless got into an away match and sat among the home supporters, woe betide you if you allowed your allegiances to become too boisterously or obviously known. You could be none-too-gently  thrown out on the spot. No appeal. No refund. We even got legal banning orders preventing named individuals from travelling  to domestic and overseas games. The level of evidence needed to justify a banning order was not high.

Was the reaction to football hooliganism reasonable and proportionate? As I recall many people thought not at the time. Was it inevitable? Absolutely. The political clamour for “something to be done” reached such a pitch (no pun intended) that politicians and the footballing authorities were obliged to be seen to act and there were a limited range of possibilities open to them.

Yet, perhaps against expectations the measures they took seem to have worked. There are still occasional outbreaks of  violence linked to football games but they are comparatively rare and isolated, definitely not on anything like the scale they were before. We have become accustomed to the indignities and inconvenience  now associated with attending live games (where large police horses  loom with riders dressed like Captain America atop), but I guess we have accepted all this because we know we live in a world where not everyone shares our cultural assumptions about the unacceptability of violence

The similarities

In the wake of the Paris massacres as the debate about the state’s powers to engage in greater scrutiny of internet based communications begins again the parallels are not difficult to discern.

But here’s the thing. I cannot instantly recall an occasion where any proposed new security-oriented measures that have emanated from the state or any of its agencies (or sometimes even from children’s organizations) have not been met with initial resistance, often intemperately expressed or rubbished to put it slightly differently. In an industry that prides itself on the speed at which it can innovate it is surprising how reluctant firms can be to try something new, especially if it wasn’t their idea to begin with.

Maybe that’s how it should be in matters of this kind. We don’t want our high tech industries or individual companies to become unwillingly (and definitely not covertly) co-opted into the apparatus of the state and the revelations stemming from the actions of Mr Snowden have certainly not helped engender an atmosphere of complete trust and transparency where areas of possible co-operation can easily be discussed by all of the parties. Yet two wrongs do not make a right. It would be a huge, strategic error for major industry players right now to pull up the drawbridge, maybe in the hope that the current storm will blow over. On the contrary they should be out there loudly and repeatedly reassuring us that they get it.

Otherwise, as reported in today’s Guardian we will only hear from the John Perry Barlowesque curmudgeons who always and predictably say “no and get lost you idiots” before retreating back into their bubble.

The public needs to be reassured

Does this mean I agree with everything our Prime Minister or President Obama are reported as advocating? Almost certainly not but equally I sincerely hope it is not true that, as some are saying  “there is nothing anyone can do that will work to protect us from terrorist abuse of the internet”. If it is I fear many governments  in the democratic world will start to explore radical options which will diminish what the internet currently is or could become in the future. If there is sufficient political will genies can be put back inside bottles even if it means – expensively and over years – having to adapt the size and shape of the bottle itself. There are some things the public  will not tolerate indefinitely.

Right now the political heat is great and it wouldn’t take much more to tip it over into overwhelming. In the democracies at the end of the day politicians will just not be able to defend Silicon Valley’s last ditch. It is in all of our interests for there to be a highly visible effort made which unambiguously demonstrates that everyone concerned is going the extra mile to address the issues that Paris and other terrorist-related events have raised.

About John Carr

John Carr is one of the world's leading authorities on children's and young people's use of digital technologies. He is Senior Technical Adviser to Bangkok-based global NGO ECPAT International and is Secretary of the UK's Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety. John is now or has formerly been an Adviser to the Council of Europe, the UN (ITU), the EU and UNICEF. John has advised many of the world's largest technology companies on online child safety. John's skill as a writer has also been widely recognised.
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