Bringing The Internet Into The Real World

Censorship Or Protecting Society?
(Image © Andréia Bohner)

A couple of weeks ago, the government announced that it wanted to bring in changes to access to online porn. Last week, there has been media coverage of ‘trolling’, where twitter users have threatened female politicians, celebrities and campaigners with rape, assault and even death. And then this week, the case of a young teenager who took her life after abuse on a social media site.

As the technological age continues, as the Internet and online access runs our lives more and more, something needs to be done. When the Internet was developed, core to it was a belief that freedom of information was imperative. That it should be above censorship and would enable knowledge, information to be passed across the world. This concept though has led to an out of control beast – one though which runs our lives and we cannot avoid. We are still applying laws, views and principles that seemed laudable in the eighties and even nineties to something which has developed at an exponential rate and is now so integrated into our culture and life styles that it  has a whole different function to that which was envisaged.

To be clear, the Internet, online access and the ability to share information is a great thing. It has, and will do more dramatically in future, transformed the way in which we work, play and interact with each other. It is vital though that is has some measure of control though. At least in the areas that we can manage.

I am entirely in favour of reducing censorship. Countries where news is filtered, edited even, to aid the control of populations and the abuse of human rights should be targeted at international level in order to allow for freedom of information and the exchange of knowledge. This however feels very different to the management of the Internet which is what the current crisis needs. It’s a shame that at times like this, the dissenters always argue at the extreme of the discussion, on one side a belief that all restrictions amount to censorship and that to bow to restrictions makes the UK no better than North Korea or the Yeman. On the other side of the debate, the Daily Mails “stance of close this site now” requests censorship rather than control.

Those who argue that censorship of the Internet is wrong should perhaps look at what has (or indeed hasn’t )changed in society over the past twenty to thirty years. When I was at school, a teenager, full of curiosity and hormones, the only access to porn that we had was learning that Mike in year four had his brothers mag and was willing to sell, or (rather worryingly now) rent it out! Access was rare, restricted and was to controlled top shelf images. That was because in those days, the regular channel of access to porn was that an adult needed to buy a magazine from a shop. The law stated that one had to be over 18 to buy one and therefore access was restricted. In essence censorship was in place. With the development of the Internet, all that has changed. To access porn now, all one needs is access to the Internet, a phone, tablet or pic and you are there. So, just because the the ability to access porn has changed, why should we have relaxed our view that only those over 18 should be allowed to purchase (or indeed access) it? Have we really changed our attitudes to porn that much in twenty years that we now think it is a child’s right to access it? I am thinking not. And this is where the change in supply, the change in channels of access have become confused with the original ethical argument. Whilst there are always going to be debates around the edges around the images that are classed as pornographic, the images that are extreme, surely our fundamental principle that porn should not be viewed by kids is still valid and held by the majority? I’m assuming so. Indeed the governments approach to this in my mind doesn’t go far enough. I think the government, the ISPs and parents should be doing far more to ensure that access to porn is limited.

The argument that introducing restrictions to the accessing of pornographic material is a slippery slope toward government censorship is a naive one. It ignores the fact that there are already restrictions in place. Thankfully it would be an extremely small group that condoned child porn images being accessible. The vast majority would agree that severe penalties should be in place for those making, distributing or accessing such content. But that’s a restriction. That’s censorship. Possibly to a lesser extent (although not much) most of us will have a threshold around which extreme images should be accessible (and to who). Again, as soon as one sets a threshold, that’s censorship.

Similarly with trolling. One is not allowed to make threats to kill, rape or harm when in a pub, the street or anywhere else. This applies to verbal and written threats. So this should apply to the Internet as well. If someone makes a threat to harm another, they should be dealt with in the same way as if they did it face to face. I would argue that the effect on the victim is the same and that is the key. ISPs, governmental organisations and the big social network organisations need to do more to ensure that anonymity is no more a cloak online as it is in the ‘real world’. If I received an anonymous threat in the post, I would expect the police to follow it up. My view is that twitter, Facebook and google should not be the police in this, they should be able to work with the police and provide evidence of threats, details of ip addresses, ISPs etc.In fact, ISPs and social network sites should have it in their terms and conditions that they will pass your details on in the event of a police investigation. The policing of this though should remain where it is in the ‘real world’  and we need to be aware that that will require extra resources. Indeed the faster that we accept the the Internet is part of the ‘real world’ and not something to control or police differently we take a significant step forward in the understanding of this problem.

A government  sets restrictions on what we can and cannot see. They set restrictions on what we can and cannot do. The great thing about the democracy that we live in is that we have the power to change those levels of restrictions through our vote. That’s not the same as censoring the media or the Internet. That’s just common sense to create the right level of restrictions to enable society to function in a just and fair way.

My argument here then is really that censorship of supply is nothing new. Laws which have been in place for years to protect principles around porn, slander, threats to harm were not seen as censorship then. And they shouldn’t be now. It’s only because the channel of communication has changed that they are being viewed as such. When one examines the reasons behind restrictions being in place twenty years ago and the reasons now, I would argue that little has changed. The reasons remain the same.

There is a desperate need for a privacy debate in this country. A need for a debate about whetehr principles have really changed that much from twenty years ago. A need to understand how much we control where we are going. The technology could drive us or we could drive it. My vote is with the latter.

The Absolute Right To Privacy

The discussion around super injunctions provides the tabloids with an easy ‘get out’ argument. The debate about whether the super-rich should use their money to gain privacy that a mere mortal on the average salary could not enjoy is clearly a valid one. It’s easy to bash the rich. In fact bashing successful people is practically a national sport in the UK. The debate though around the need for injunctions or super injunctions. I am not suggesting that the tabloids be given free rein to report whatever topic they see fit but rather that we re-examine the principle of privacy rather than public interest.
The Public Interest Justification is
 Overused to the detriment of privacy
(Image ©Sean MacEntee)

The public interest argument is one that is parroted all the time when the injunction issue is raised in public debate. Should a politician who is standing on a family friendly ticket be exposed for extra marital dalliances? That is probably a matter of public interest since it shows that he (sic) is not practicing what he is preaching. Even that of course doesn’t mean that their political statement is flawed but we will let that go. The problem is that having established that right to report on the MP, that right seems to then be transferred to any public figure. The same argument cannot be used to apply to a footballer or sportsman apart from in exceptional circumstances perhaps. Tiger Woods could be argued to have made money from sponsorship from his clean cut image for example. The real cases of public interest are few and far between though – not all politicians fall into this category, very few sportsman or celebrities do.

Even where there is public interest it does not give an excuse to report on anything else. Salacious kiss and tell stories do not address the public interest angle or at least only obliquely. Finding out that a politician wore his Chelsea shirt in bed adds nothing to any argument that we must know that a particular stated principle is being breached.
Which leads on to the privacy issue. These arguments all centre round affairs, sexual liasons etc. The real problem is much lower level than that. Through the years, the public have come to expect a public intrusion into celebrities lives. Public intrusion which, in any other walk of life would be a criminal matter. As a example, a photo appeared in one of tabloids last week of an Olympic rower changing after a race. The photo was professionally taken – not just snapped by a passer-by so clearly the photographer had been waiting for this opportunity. If someone stalked me or you in this manner, taking unauthorised candid pictures, is that not a matter for the local constabulary? And yet this event just passes by with a self depreciating comment by the celebrity on Twitter. 
We all have a right to privacy. As set out above, there are very few examples where that privacy should be breached as a matter of public interest. The need for injunctions, super or otherwise should therefore be slight. Unfortunately though, until  it is not seen as perfectly normal for photographers to creep around in bushes taking unauthorised pictures, the need for protection remains.