Every great advance in communication provokes an overreaction. No sooner had Johannes Gutenberg developed the art of mass printing in the 15th Century than there was widespread alarm at the sort of books and ideas that resulted from his invention.
‘Something’ had to be done – and that something usually resulted in a form of censorship or regulation from above.
The same thing is happening today. We are barely a dozen years into the explosion of social media – with all that is glorious, liberating, creative, messy, menacing and hateful about it – and there are demands to clip its wings. Or even kill it off.
Facebook ban: Marlene Weise was banned from Facebook for 30 days for posing the two pictures of the Iranian national women’s volleyball team in the 1970s in T-shirts and shorts and the current Iranian team covered up in hijabs and clothes covering their arms and legs
Just as in 1487 the Pope woke up to the dangers of mass communication and introduced censorship, so our own Government has produced a White Paper describing its intentions to crack down on what it calls ‘online harms’. To some, it is a proportionate enough response to the failure of the West Coast giants to clean up their own act.
To others, it spells the end of the internet as we’ve known it.
The White Paper is full of reasonable-sounding propositions. Its very first sentence pronounces: ‘The Government wants the UK to be the safest place in the world to go online.’
Those of us who work in universities are nervous of the language of ‘safe spaces’, knowing that – out there in the big bad world – there are no such thing as ‘safe spaces’ and that we do no favours to our students to prepare them for an environment which doesn’t exist.
How does the Government propose that the UK’s online space becomes the safest in the world? By introducing rules against ‘unacceptable’ content.
Like ‘safe spaces’, the word ‘unacceptable’ should ring alarm bells. Unacceptable to whom?
In future, internet users will not be allowed to ‘undermine our democratic values and principles’. Offenders will be punished with huge fines and by naming and shaming the senior management of offending companies.
Maybe this all sounds a little… Chinese? Or Russian? Saudi Arabia has a similar prejudice against people who voice ‘unacceptable’ opinions. Within a few pages of the executive summary, an average reader might begin asking some of the basic questions any would-be reporter is trained to ask in their first week at work in a newsroom: what, who, where, when and why? What is going to be regulated? The broad answer is bad stuff.
But ‘bad stuff’ encompasses a huge range of material from things that are already illegal (terrorism, hate speech, child pornography etc) to more nebulous concepts. These include ‘echo chambers’ and ‘filter bubbles’, for example – which mean individual web users meet only a narrow range of views – and online harms ‘which undermine our shared rights, responsibilities and opportunities to foster integration’. That’s a very broad gamut of potentially controversial content and gives rise to the Who question. Who decides whether material is likely to be considered harmful, and who gets to regulate the supposedly safest place in the world?
The answer seems to be a mixture of the companies themselves, who will have a new ‘statutory duty of care’, backed up by an independent regulator. In some cases, the Home Secretary will be required to sign off on some codes of practice, giving a politician the right to determine what is and isn’t acceptable.
Mail on Sunday readers will not need reminding that Jeremy Corbyn could be the next occupant of No10 Downing Street. And so might Boris Johnson, whose own relationship with the truth has sometimes been shaky. Right or Left, politicians shouldn’t be the judges of what a free society allows people to say, write or think.
Where? Well, the regulator will be based on these shores. But it has not escaped the attention of the White Paper authors that many of the largest and most successful social media companies are headquartered on the other side of the planet.
There is vague talk of powers to ‘enable the regulator to disrupt the business activities of a non-compliant company, measures to impose liability on individual members of senior management, and measures to block non-compliant services’.
This is Whitehall as King Canute, the Faceless against Facebook. There are, of course, countries which have successfully banned Google or switched off Twitter. They may even think of themselves as ‘safe’ online places. Whether the average Brit would want to go and live in such places must be open to doubt.
When? Well, the White Paper is proposing that social media companies move very quickly – within 24 hours – to remove offending material. Something like this has recently been tried in Germany with mixed results.
The threat of enormous fines has led to a culture of ‘senior management’ playing safe and some frankly bizarre examples of speech being censored.
There are now numerous examples of people being banned for satire, parody or causing offence. In March last year, a user was banned after joking: ‘Muslim men are taking a second wife. To finance their lives, Germans are taking a second job.’
The same month a woman received a month’s ban from Facebook for posting two pictures: one showed the 1970s Iranian women’s national volleyball team, wearing T-shirts and shorts; the current Iranian team was shown wearing hijabs and clothes that covered arms and legs.
Both posts might cause a degree of offence, but does a ‘safe’ online space rule out any humour?
In any event, there are now several German sites which are only too willing to repost any material which alarms Facebook or Twitter.
Then comes the Why? The instinct for such a crackdown on the internet is an understandable one. There is material in cyberspace – lots of it – which has no place in a decent society. It is entirely right to be looking for ways of protecting children and the vulnerable from things that could harm them. But unless it can answer the basic questions – not forgetting the How? – then the danger is that Britain will snuff out a precious flame.
There are lots of reasons to dislike the West Coast giants. I wish they were more transparent; less driven by profit, more driven by public service.
The Google algorithm, for example, is one of the most powerful economic tools on the planet, yet how it works is a complete mystery to all its billions of users.
I don’t like them behaving like monopolies. I wish they would pay a fair share of tax on the enormous revenues they are scooping up. Some of them could undoubtedly afford to comply with the sort of stringent regime of regulation imagined in this report. But what about the smaller community websites? Or newspapers, struggling to deal with the dramatic loss of revenues as advertising is remorselessly sucked away by new players and new technologies?
What about the millions who have, in the past dozen or so years, found a voice and a freedom to communicate in this messy, brave and sometimes ugly new world?
What kind of example would we be setting to countries where dissidents rely on the ability to post ‘unacceptable’ thoughts?
It’s easy to demand instant answers to difficult problems. We won’t solve the very real challenges of the internet by creating half-baked regulators on the back of a White Paper that asks many right questions, but comes up with an equal number of wrong answers.
Five hundred years ago, Gutenberg’s invention led to convulsive revolutions in religion, science, business, education and much more. One writer has claimed the German printer ‘forged the key that would open the doors of knowledge to all mankind’.
We are at a similar moment in history. Let’s not waste it.
Alan Rusbridger was editor in chief of The Guardian. He is now Principal of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, and chairs the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.