Alarming noises fom Google

My clever radio alarm clock normally wakes me me up by blasting out the BBC’s “Today” programme. This is the UK’s  prime, agenda-setting current affairs programme. Pretty much the whole of our political class tunes in. And me.

Four days ago, in a still befuddled state I was certain I heard a reporter say that, rather than comply with some of the aspects of internet regulation foreshadowed in the Online Harms White Paper, Google were putting it about they might withdraw from the UK, or any rate YouTube could cease operations here.

I had heard something like it said before, a while ago, but on that occasion I dimissed it as airy bluster from someone who was momentarily unhinged. Now I know there’s more than one person at YouTube who has lost touch with reality.

While Mark Zuckerberg and Nick Clegg appear to be demanding “more help” policing  harmful content,  Ben McOwen Wilson, YouTube’s UK boss, appears to be concerned he might be about to be offered too much.

YouTube’s Press Officers or Government Relations people probably won’t let Wilson out on his own again. I wouldn’t if I was them.

He did an interview with the BBC and his replies to the journalist gave rise to those alarming comments which dragged me from the arms of Morpheus.

You can watch the whole interview here if you wish. It’s not very long but I have plucked out a few bits.

Referring to the Online Harms White Paper, the interviewer asked

“What for you in a regulatory sense is the worst case scenario that  the UK Government could come up with?”

Wilson’s reply? First he abandoned his big, global capitalist corporate hat and adopted the mantle of “the British public” or the  “listeners and viewers”. A mistake. Schoolboy error, but let’s press on.

He is anxious about

“…decisions being taken in a darkened room by unnamed individuals around who gets a right to speak and make their thoughts and views available to the public. I think that is what we should all be afraid of. We might end up in those places  and at that point we would have to take a decision on whether it would be appropriate to continue to operate.” (emphasis added)

There was no roll of drums or shrieks in the background as the “darkened room and unnamed individuals” were conjured up. Maybe that can be inserted in a future edit.

And just in case you wondered what all this might mean, where Wilson thinks we could be heading in the “worst case scenario” he fears “could” be contrived by a British Government, he goes on to say

“We’re not available in China. We’re not available in Sudan.” (emphasis not added here because it is utterly superfluous).

Seemingly these are examples of “markets” (note) where YouTube is not available because they’ve been unable to agree rules about “censorship”. 

Where to begin deconstructing this?

Today Boris Johnson became Leader of the Conservative Party which means tomorrow he will become Prime Minister. Fighting off my deeply depressed state of mind I must acknowledge that not even he is going to turn the UK into another China or Sudan in terms of free speech and the comparison or suggestion that such a thing is even on the furthest of horizons will be seen by many as deeply insulting, and arrogant beyond words.

In the larger interview, reported elsewhere on the BBC, referring to the outcome of the discussions now taking place on the Online Harms White Paper, Wilson digs a deeper hole when he says

“There are regimes out there who will mirror – in their own ways – the position that they view the UK has taken.”  (emphasis added). He calls that a “risk”.

You hear this kind of nonsense a lot. But that’s all it is. Nonsense. The idea that Britain only has permission to defend its children or other classes of citizens in the way it thinks fit when it can be confident North Korea can’t or won’t twist our words and use them in their own ways to justify the oppression of the people of North Korea is just facile.


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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