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 Politics of Greed

I note a number of stories about politicians again in the media over the past few weeks. The first was based around whether it was right that they were given a 10 per cent pay rise, the other notable one was the headlines about our Prime Minister being off on his ‘jollies’.

The debate over the pay rise quickly moved away from the point. The difficulty in granting such a pay rise at a period when public sector pay rises have been largely frozen should have been the main discussion point. However, the talk quickly descended into an argument about MPs being lazy, greedy and corrupt. A theme the media love to take up even though the evidence is barely there to support it. A it’s simplest level, the vast majority of MPs could hold down senior executive roles in FTSE companies. The latest pay rise will put them roughly  at the bottom of this pay range. In short there are easier ways for talented people to make money.

David Cameron
Is Cameron no longer allowed on holiday?
(Image © BisGovUK 2013)

To take the laziness argument first. MPs work hard. I would love to know what the man in the street who states otherwise is comparing it to. Long hours, extreme constant scrutiny and high stress doesn’t strike me as an easy life. Attending Westminster and working for the party alongside the constituency business means seriously long hours accompanied by the logistical difficulties of high degree of travel. A Hansard study of new MPs conducted in 2011 highlighted the disparity between needing to spend the majority of time on constituency business with the fact that around 65 per cent of time is spent in Westminster. The study picked up on an average 69 hour working week. This compares for instance to an average of 57 for a secondary school Head-teacher  The reality though for both these roles is that one is permanently working. Always on call, always available. What any of the detractors fail to grasp, sitting in their 9 to 5 roles is that there is no turn off point. One hears comments on long holidays (from Westminster) which ignore the point that that is generally focused constituency time rather than time spent in the sun. 

The holiday comment is also worth pursuing in more detail. Pictures of David Cameron covered  the tabloid press last week. The Mail reported that he “relaxed in a restaurant” and quoted a Labour MP who said “Britain Deserved More”. Meaning what? They deserve someone who doesn’t take a holiday? Is that now the view of the opposition? That we are more effective without holidays? That’s moving quite a long way from protecting workers. I’m guessing that that isn’t really the view of Labour, guessing in fact it’s not really the view of the media either and that holidays are still allowed for the ‘hard working family’ and guessing that its just an easy bandwagon topic to roll out in the quiet summer months. It also ignores the fact that people who operate at this sort of level don’t really get holidays as the rest of us know them. Yes, they get away to the sun, even spend time having a meal in a restaurant, being romantically  photographed by paparazzi. But they don’t stop, always on call or in Cameron’s case, constantly being briefed and updated on the latest situations. Different location doesn’t mean he stops working.

Then the corrupt piece. There is an argument that says that the MP should be beyond reproach. That they should be perfect in every aspect of their professional and personal lives. This doesn’t merely even apply to the time they serve in parliament but to anything they may have done in their youth. Of course a criticism of MPs is that they are distant from reality, that they don’t reflect the lives of their constituents. These, I am guessing, are people who never make mistakes, never have affairs and are similarly beyond reproach? You really can’t have it both ways. In the Hansard study, the vast majority of canvassed MPs said the role was having a detrimental effect on their private lives. Worth noting that any role that has such a significant effect on private lives, especially combined with late hours and working away from home is likely to create am environment where MPs form extra marital relationships to help them cope or to escape.  One of the areas most frowned on (and sensationally reported on) of course by our impeccably well behaved media. 

The recent expenses crisis of course highlighted some of the worst practices of the MPs. Although interestingly the reality was that only very few actually broke rules. It highlighted antiquated rules, established practices and quite rightly prompted a remodelling of the expenses procedures. Those that did have been rightfully prosecuted and most have stepped down. They represent a tiny proportion of the whole. Probably one that is in line with (or even less than) a comparable sample of expense fraud in any corporate.  

But it created a view that the tabloid media have been keen to further. The view that politicians do it for the easy life, that they do it for the money. Neither bears out in reality. Long hours, always on duty.  The constant threat of exposure in the media for the slightest mistake all with low comparative renumeration. That’s not an easy life, it’s certainly not the way to make the most money.

Most MPs enter politics with the aim to make things better. To fight for principles that they firmly believe in. To make their country a better place. In my dealings with politicians, that never changes. Like anyone in any organisation, corporate or public, they get weighed down by the internal politics, the bureaucracy and the sheer effort involved in actually achieving what should be small tasks. But my experience is that that desire to do ones best always remains. 

It’s a tough job, one I would certainly never want to do. It isn’t by any means an easy life, there are better ways of making money. It also has a unique characteristic in that in theory, if you find enough people who think you would do a better job, you could do it. Mind you, that’s quite a lot of effort. Maybe it’s easier to go on holiday.

BBC report on Hansard study
Guardian comparison between teachers and MPs working hours 
Best Paid Jobs League Table