In the month following the horrible murder of Jo Cox, around 50,000 tweets were sent celebrating her death and lauding her killer as a hero and patriot. This quite neatly proved my hitherto untested hypothesis that the internet is full of nasty little sh*ts, with many of them fond of demonstrating just how sh*tty they can be, as long as they can do so safely behind the anonymity of a computer keyboard.
Having said that, I suppose even nasty little sh*ts are entitled to opinions, even if they don’t bear much more scrutiny than my underpants after a particularly epic bout of the norovirus. If you’ll forgive me a final lavatorial simile, I’ll quote the old saying – ‘opinions are like arseholes. Everyone’s got one and quite a few of them stink’.
Would I want to see people prosecuted for writing such hateful things? Not really. As long as they’re not actually advocating more violence. Would I like to see them outed to their friends and family? Probably, because in cases like this I think the option to remain anonymous is a cop out. But thereby hangs a dilemma. Because while we’ve all been busy yammering on about Brexit and Bremoaner bashing, the government sneaked through a bill that would probably allow them to do either of those things quite easily, and I’m not really that happy about it.
The ominously named Investigative Powers Bill became law on 17th November and virtually no one noticed. It’s something of a masterwork of Theresa May. Ever since her days as Home Secretary she’s been itching to get her proboscis into our browsing history, eager to read our emails and texts and positively gasping to nail every one of us irrevocably to whatever random website you might visit in an idle few moments.
The new Act means that service providers are now legally obliged to keep records of every bit of your internet and mobile phone use for at least a year, which will then be open to scrutiny by the police and security forces virtually on a whim. It also requires communications companies and hardware manufacturers to alter any encryption they apply to devices or software so that they can be legally hacked by the UK government.
On hearing that this bill had passed into law US whistleblower Edward Snowden tweeted: “The UK has just legalised the most extreme surveillance in the history of western democracy. It goes further than many autocracies.” From now on, your every move in this country will be monitored, recorded and stored away in case it one day proves useful to someone in power. The new law goes way beyond the wildest dreams of even some of the most totalitarian regimes around the globe and certainly exceeds powers available to security services in the USA. Although of course with Trump about to take office, it’s probably only a matter of time until they follow our lead.
But perhaps the saddest thing about this bill becoming UK law is just how easily it happened. The government couldn’t believe their luck as it sailed though both houses with hardly a peep from the official opposition party, especially as a previous version or the same legislation was comprehensively slated by privacy campaigners and opponents in 2013. Indeed the government were reported to be gearing up for what they expected to be a difficult battle to see the latest reincarnation of the ‘snooper’s charter’ put on the statute books.
But apart from disapproval voiced by those same campaigning groups and backed by the Lib Dems, Greens and the SNP, any serious opposition simply didn’t materialise. Labour were almost completely absent from most of the debates and only turned up at the end to vote with the Tories to allow the bill to pass. It seems the old days of a virtual Stalinist state overseen by a party in love with such authoritarian devices of control as seamless CCTV coverage, ID cards and detention without trial has managed to survive the brave new world of Corbyn’s supposed reformation.
The usual cry of course is that people who have nothing to hide have nothing to fear. But with very little in the way of safeguards about who would have access to such information, the fear is very real. It has potential to restrict the chances of whistle-blowers from voicing important concern as well as restricting the scope of investigative journalists. Both require some anonymity which will now be hard to come by and the National Union of Journalists have already expressed deep concerns.
So many other aspects of our lives could be impacted by the availability of web search data that could be open to wilful or accidental misinterpretation. It’s evidence that’s being gathered about you on a second by second basis. Otherwise innocent activity could easily be used against you. It’s thought crime made flesh.
But there’s more. The Digital Economy Bill is now also making fairly easy passage through parliament and it too contains potential invasion of privacy and restriction of freedom. The bill is fast becoming a general hotchpotch of any old bit of legislation someone with an axe to grind about the web wants to throw in. The latest bit of junk being restrictions on online pornography.
It contains proposals to make porn websites verify the age of its users in an attempt to prevent children being able to consume such material. But it contains very little detail about how this would be done. Few people would argue about the rights and wrongs of preventing young eyes catching a glimpse of anything raunchy, even though they’re probably already exposed to such imagery in advertising, video games, movies, TV , or any one of a dozen different channels of subversion easily available to the inquiring mind (in my day it was porn mags found in hedgerows, but I digress).
The requirement for age verification again brings into question how such data would be collected and stored and who it would be available to. The chances of it falling into the ‘wrong’ hands are pretty obvious. If such information became available to some unscrupulous individuals, or even organisations such as Wikileaks, much damage could be wrought. No doubt this is one of the reasons that MPs have specifically excluded themselves from having their own data collected under any of these new bills. Given the frequently fruity peccadillos of our lords and masters it’s little wonder that they don’t want to have to second guess their own activity online. Sadly I understand that Labour’s complicity in voting the IPA into law was bought with similar concessions to union officials.
Bolted on to the proposals on age verification there are also moves to allow that great bastion of party pooping, the British Board of Film Classification, to further restrict the availability of online material in line with their own enduringly prurient agenda. Obviously miffed at the idea that we can now view almost anything online, they are vying to curb anything that wouldn’t otherwise be given a certificate under current rules applying to films, DVDs etc. This includes a long list of activities deemed as ‘non-conventional sexual acts’.
Whilst there are many things I’d agree need to be restricted – and their producers prosecuted – such as child exploitation, animal abuse, obviously genuine violence, torture etc. I wouldn’t ever wish to impose my own personal set of prejudices and predilections onto anyone else. Child abuse, animal abuse and acts of real violence are already illegal. We don’t need new laws to decide for us where we should draw the line on consensual acts, many of which are down to personal taste and the unfathomable depths of individual experience.
If there’s one thing I learned in my early years as a psychologist, it’s that there’s virtually nothing in the human psyche that could surprise me. If nailing your own gonads to a garden wall while your partner micturates on you floats your boat then who am I to judge? But under the proposed legislation, filming the act and distributing the resultant material would fall foul of at least 3 of the BBFC’s inalienable rules.
If you roll all this up in a bundle with other recent moves by websites like Facebook to restrict what they call ‘fake news’ and what most of the rest of us call satire, the open vistas and free thinking of the digital frontier would appear to be things of the past. In the same way as who decides what’s non-conventional’ about your own sexuality, who decides what’s censored under the heading ‘fake’? Equally, if we’re not able or trusted to decide such things for ourselves and either avoid or denounce on our own terms, how much real freedom will there be left in the media? Especially when the likes of Murdoch and his fellow gutter press cohorts have remained unchallenged on the same charge for so many years.
Ever since the dawn of the internet, governments and security institutions have been desperate to impose their own order online. Up until now that has been resisted. But it seems that resistance is about to be overrun by a right wing – and even a left wing – authoritarian state, the like of which I never really expected to see in this country.
Nearly 10 years ago Naomi Wolf defined her 10 steps to totalitarianism. Many have argued that some western democracies such as ours have already breached several of the early waymarkers on that road. It would seem to me these new laws will certainly tick off Step 4 – ‘set up an internal surveillance system’ and step 8 – ‘Control the press’.
Whilst there is still some hope from quarters such as the Open Rights Group and other similar organisations who are fighting to prevent this suppression of our right to choose what we see and listen to in the privacy of our own laptop, it’s looking increasingly likely that the stages Wolf defined in 2007 are being seen as a to-do list rather than a warning from history.
In that context those that would seek to harm our society by thought or deed would seem to have won, once we put in place the very restrictions they’d love to impose on us themselves. It might be fetishes and satire today, but tomorrow it could easily be anything that the people who know best don’t want us to see.
So on balance I think I’d be prepared to put up with a few nasty little Twitter trolls and some physical acts that I might personally find less than savoury, rather than give the keys to Big Brother and allow him to lock down the freedoms we’ve all, up until now, enjoyed.
Support the Open Rights campaign for online privacy
Support Don’t Spy On Us’ campaign against the Investigatory Powers Bill