Blinded by the light

I removed the Open Rights Group (ORG) from my Christmas card list because of its disgraceful behaviour over those parts of the Digital Economy Act 2017 which establish a new regime for reducing the exposure of children to material published on commercial pornography web sites.

That does not mean I think we can or should ignore everything they say or do. In and around the ORG there are some serious people with great knowledge and valuable insights. It’s a shame they don’t always have the upper hand. I know in fast moving campaigns it is not always possible to get everything right – boy do I know that! – yet in the case of the ORG one might wish their mistakes or errors of judgement were not so monotonously predictable.

Beautiful dreamer

The ORG and similar bodies strike me as romantics who refuse to abandon a dream. Everyone has a soft spot for romantics.

To borrow a phrase from Manfred Mann, they were “blinded by the light”.  There was a brief, dazzling moment in the 1990s when it looked like the internet could and would change the world in wholly beneficial ways. Zero downside. We all, me included, fell in love with the buzz and the high of those days of innocence. The romantics believe it is possible to recreate them or something like, or at least to hang on to the echoes. I don’t.

As they were tripping to John Perry Barlow the romantics believed tyrants everywhere would fall and we would all hook up to save the northern white rhinoceros. Disease and poverty would be sent into headlong, urgent retreat as engaged and enraged righteous citizens across the globe, rose in a virtual and elevated modern form of Athenian democracy, joining hands to force politicians and big business to make everything right.

Candy Crush, dancing kittens, rigged elections and beheadings

What did we get? Candy Crush, rigged elections, countless videos of cute kittens vying with images of journalists being beheaded, a tsunami of child sex abuse material and an avalanche of images of anti-female violence rebranded as “free speech”. ORG tells us videos of minority sexual behaviour need to remain easily viewable in order that a handful of interested people can hide in plain sight.

Meanwhile surveillance capitalism, looking for ever more efficient ways of targeting advertising, paved the way for, er,  surveillance everything.

OK. That’s not all we got, not by a long chalk, and on another day I will happily sing the praises of the technology’s positives, but we have to remove the rose tinted glasses and the rose tinted hope. We have to recognise that if we do not find effective ways of addressing  some of the extremely serious problems the technology is creating – not just the ones the free speech lobby appears to care about – we will end up with, not nothing exactly – we are way past the point where that can happen –  but something very different that is definitely not better.

Techies might think they are super smart and smugly believe they can,  in perpetuity, keep outwitting governments and the monopolies but in the end without the mass of informed popular opinion on their side they are bound to lose.  And anyway this shouldn’t be reduced to some kind of macho war of attrition (note how I elegantly avoided the more obvious, earthier metaphor).

The internet is many different things, some more important than others

For the vast majority of people for the vast majority of time the internet occupies a niche in the consumer space, alongside toasters, vacuum cleaners and so on.  Internet access now comes packaged as an add on to your TV and cable service. It is used to do shopping, book flights and holidays, watch Hollywood blockbusters and send pictures of the kids to Granny in Australia.

Thus, across a broad spread of its operations the internet cannot escape being judged by consumer-style rules and expectations. The difficulty, of course, is that the internet is not just in the consumer space but speech and politics seem to blot out everything else for the ORG crowd. That’s why we have these seemingly interminable debates about how and where we strike the balance.

The smart move

The truly clever thing would be for the techies and free speech/political internauts  to make common cause with more broadly-based interests in the fight against widely acknowledged evils. I do not associate with anyone who wants to ignore, suppress or is careless about the rights of minorities but there has to be a point somewhere on the compass where these can be preserved or even enhanced without compromising the rights of others e.g. in this case a large vulnerable group such as children.

Many years ago I said something like this to a leading 1st Amendment lawyer in the USA. He looked at me as if I was nuts. He left me with the impression that he just hangs about waiting for someone, preferably the Government or a large monopoly, to make a move he can get someone to pay him to criticise or, ideally, take to court.  He liked the old version of the internet and believes the judges will help everyone go back there or get near to it. Our conversation was pre-Trump. I wonder if he still thinks that?

The pervasive view with a certain set  is every internet user is or ought to be a fully competent, literate, tech-savvy adult and if they aren’t that’s their problem and they deserve whatever they get. No one should have to be put to even the smallest inconvenience or suffer the most momentary delay because some idiot doesn’t know the difference between a TCP IP stack and a bowl of custard or feckless parents can’t keep their kids under control.

The ORG’s proposals

These thoughts are prompted by my reading of the ORG’s latest publication.  UK Internet Regulation – Part 1: Internet Censorship in the UK today has much in it with which I can agree. For example I fully support the calls for greater transparency.

I also agree any organization with formal or informal power to require content to be removed from the internet or for particular addresses to be blocked should be subject to Freedom of Information requests and public reporting requirements. I absolutely do not agree that blocked addresses or specific details of removed content should be published but there should always be independent appeals or review mechanisms.

I get that some poor unfortunate, non-English-speaking trader in Kyrgyzstan  or Germany might not realise their wares are not accessible by potential customers in the UK because of an error of classification and if someone can come up with an answer to that which does not also require all the addresses of  sites likely to be breaking the law to be made available to the whole world I’ll vote for it. But not otherwise.

I am attracted to the idea that there might be an over-arching judicial tribunal of some kind which could, as it were, act as a guarantor of the integrity of all of the self-regulatory/co-regulatory mechanisms in the internet space. The IWF, in effect, already has something like that. A retired senior judge runs the slide rule over their operations. Maybe this aspect  could be swept up when the Government’s long awaited White Paper  on harms and governance comes out next year.

Censorship? I don’t think so

I am intensely irritated by the loose way in which the word “censorship” is bandied about.  Seeking compliance with the law e.g. by requiring a known illegal image to be removed, cannot possibly be thought of as censorship. You might not like the substantive law but that is a different point.

For me censorship involves permanently and inflexibly removing something that is otherwise lawful, as in requiring cuts to be made from a book, article or film or directing that a book, article or film be completely withdrawn from circulation.

Not everything that is legal needs to be on unrestricted public display but any actions which reduce access to it have to be grounded in law. But in what sense is it censorship if all you do is impose reasonable, temporary and reversible limitations e.g. removable filters, in order to protect children? Or you impose limitations which can be lifted if anyone can establish that they meet a reasonable requirement e.g. by proving they are 18 or above? When I was a lad in Leeds all the “best dirty books” were kept in a locked room in the main library and only adults were allowed in. I cannot now remember how I came to know that.

We impose restrictions in relation to the sale, advertising, display or promotion of alcohol, tobacco and so on, why not in respect of porn? I appreciate there is more social baggage associated with porn consumption than there is with drinking and smoking but we have to weigh these things and choose which is more important. Who would say that the protection of children is less important than asking people to comply with privacy-respecting rules to prove their age? It is a tiny and minor irritant designed to deliver a larger social good.

Dancing in the same ballroom

Nevertheless it is obvious that even if the above are not censorship they are dancing in the same ballroom as censorship and whenever politicians or political institutions step into or approach that ballroom it is unreasonable to expect citizens to take everything on trust.  Transparency and accountability are key. In that regard I agree the status quo is failing.

But enough already with the “Virgin Killers” story. One mistake in 2008? Is that your best shot? It was a mistake that could not have been avoided by any judicial or other process in Britain because nobody in the UK section of Planet Earth knew how Wikipedia’s systems would react. It was an error that was swiftly corrected. Would it have been put right so rapidly if the matter had had to go back to court? And in their document the ORG speak of other (classification?) decisions by the IWF that have been “found wanting” . That’s news to me and I am sure it will be to others.

Laughed out loud

Which brings me to the bit of the ORG report that made me laugh out loud. ORG essentially wants nothing to happen until a court has approved it. Yet they tell us the area where it appears there is the highest number of mistakes being made is the one where a judicial order is required, namely in respect of blocking copyright infringing web sites.  It seems 38% of blocking injunctions examined were wrong in some way. There’s a moral there somewhere.

Perhaps part of the moral revolves around this: while written rules are essential for a great many things, they are rarely sufficient. We need to recognise and give weight to other things too.  The political culture and traditions within a jurisdiction matter.

The UK Government, police and security services are not barely distinguishable  from their equivalents in North Korea, East Germany and Saudi Arabia, nor do they wish to emulate them or if they ever do acquire such an ambition we will all have gone to hell in a handcart anyway. Look for me in the Yorkshire hills with my survivalist backpack.

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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