Tag Archives: freedom of speech

The future of freedom of speech

This is mainly about the UK, but some applies elsewhere too.

The UK Police are in trouble yet again for taking the side of criminals against the law-abiding population. Our police seem to have frequent trouble with understanding the purpose of their existence. This time in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo murders, some police forces decided that their top priority was not to protect freedom of speech nor to protect law-abiding people from terrorists, but instead to visit the newsagents that were selling Charlie Hebdo and get the names of people buying copies. Charlie Hebdo has become synonymous with the right to exercise freedom of speech, and by taking names of its buyers, those police forces have clearly decided that Charlie Hebdo readers are the problem, not the terrorists. Some readers might indeed present a threat, but so might anyone in the population. Until there is evidence to suspect a crime, or at the very least plotting of a crime, it is absolutely no rightful business of the police what anyone does. Taking names of buyers treats them as potential suspects for future hate crimes. It is all very ‘Minority Report’, mixed with more than a touch of ‘Nineteen-eighty-four’. It is highly disturbing.

The Chief Constable has since clarified to the forces that this was overstepping the mark, and one of the offending forces has since apologised. The others presumably still think they were in the right. I haven’t yet heard any mention of them saying they have deleted the names from their records.

This behavior is wrong but not surprising. The UK police often seem to have socio-political agendas that direct their priorities and practices in upholding the law, individually and institutionally.

Our politicians often pay lip service to freedom of speech while legislating for the opposite. Clamping down on press freedom and creation of thought crimes (aka hate crimes) have both used the excuse of relatively small abuses of freedom to justify taking away our traditional freedom of speech. The government reaction to the Charlie Hebdo massacre was not to ensure that freedom of speech is protected in the UK, but to increase surveillance powers and guard against any possible backlash. The police have also become notorious for checking social media in case anyone has said anything that could possibly be taken as offensive by anyone. Freedom of speech only remains in the UK provided you don’t say anything that anyone could claim to be offended by, unless you can claim to be a member of a preferred victim group, in which case it sometimes seems that you can do or say whatever you want. Some universities won’t even allow some topics to be discussed. Freedom of speech is under high downward pressure.

So where next? Privacy erosion is a related problem that becomes lethal to freedom when combined with a desire for increasing surveillance. Anyone commenting on social media already assumes that the police are copied in, but if government gets its way, that will be extended to list of the internet services or websites you visit, and anything you type into search. That isn’t the end though.

Our televisions and games consoles listen in to our conversation (to facilitate voice commands) and send some of the voice recording to the manufacturers. We should expect that many IoT devices will do so too. Some might send video, perhaps to facilitate gesture recognition, and the companies might keep that too. I don’t know whether they data mine any of it for potential advertising value or whether they are 100% benign and only use it to deliver the best possible service to the user. Your guess is as good as mine.

However, since the principle has already been demonstrated, we should expect that the police may one day force them to give up their accumulated data. They could run a smart search on the entire population to find any voice or video samples or photos that might indicate anything remotely suspicious, and could then use legislation to increase monitoring of the suspects. They could make an extensive suspicion database for the whole population, just in case it might be useful. Given that there is already strong pressure to classify a wide range of ordinary everyday relationship rows or financial quarrels as domestic abuse, this is a worrying prospect. The vast majority of the population have had arguments with a partner at some time, used a disparaging comment or called someone a name in the heat of the moment, said something in the privacy of their home that they would never dare say in public, used terminology that isn’t up to date or said something less than complimentary about someone on TV. All we need now to make the ‘Demolition Man’ automated fine printout a reality is more time and more of the same government and police attitudes as we are accustomed to.

The next generation of software for the TVs and games consoles could easily include monitoring of eye gaze direction, maybe some already do. It might need that for control (e.g look and blink), or to make games smarter or for other benign reasons. But when the future police get the records of everything you have watched, what image was showing on that particular part of the screen when you made that particular expression, or made that gesture or said that, then we will pretty much have the thought police. They could get a full statistical picture of your attitudes to a wide range of individuals, groups, practices, politics or policies, and a long list of ‘offences’ for anyone they don’t like this week. None of us are saints.

The technology is all entirely feasible in the near future. What will make it real or imaginary is the attitude of the authorities, the law of the land and especially the attitude of the police. Since we are seeing an increasing disconnect between the police and the intent behind the law of the land, I am not the only one that this will worry.

We’ve already lost much of our freedom of speech in the UK. If we do not protest loudly enough and defend what we have left, we will soon lose the rest, and then lose freedom of thought. Without the freedom to think what you want, you don’t have any freedom worth having.


Increasing censorship will lead to increasing loneliness

Like many people reading the news, I am rather baffled at the new wave of apparent offense caused by another perfectly innocent use of a word that has simply gone out of fashion. Benedict Cumberbatch accidentally used the word ‘coloured’ when referring to a black person. He intended no offense and it was presumably a simple slip of the tongue based on his early education on good manners. People use all sorts of words and grammar when speaking that they would filter, rearrange or translate when writing.

When I was young in 1970s Belfast, ‘black’ was considered impolite and ‘coloured’ was considered more respectful. Fashion has changed and ‘black’ is the current polite word in the UK, I think. People adapt and learn eventually, but occasional accidental reversion to earlier terminology in real time interactions ought to be accepted by reasonable people. But it isn’t as simple as that.

The US-based civil rights organisation the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People evidently still uses the word ‘colored’. It is initially hard to understand why an organisation that represents black people would use a word in their actual title that is actually considered offensive elsewhere, in the internet age. There is a feasible explanation though, thanks to Aisha (@aisha_rsh) for the link: http://www.quora.com/Why-does-the-NAACP-still-use-Colored-People-in-the-organizations-name-Like-Negro-that-term-appears-to-be-outdated-Some-even-find-it-offensive

That’s fine, I sort of understand, but even so, it does seem that alleged hurt feelings are somewhat exaggerated. Those who claim to be offended by it are presumably not offended when the largest black rights organisation uses it, even if for reasons of honoring tradition. If it is only offensive when spoken by a non-black such as Cumberbatch, then that is a form of mild racism against whites. Racism is bad in either direction. We should all have the same rules and have equal access to the same vocabulary. I’m all for full and true equality, but against any group claiming superiority, even via alleged victim-hood and deliberate offense-taking. In any case, my parents taught me about sticks and stones and the lesson stuck well. I’ve experienced plenty of name-calling but never lost any sleep over it.

People can be hurt by words, and when that hurt is genuine, then apologies are justified and Cumberbatch has apologized for any offence he caused. However, let’s also remember that taking offense when no offense is intended can be and often is an offensive act. It can be a form of aggression, of putting down the other while putting oneself on a pedestal. In this case, some of the comment certainly falls in that category.

However, after a 400 word intro, I am becoming aware I am drifting off my intended point. Which is:

At the moment, we are seeing worldwide a growing conflict between sub-communities. With too much genuine misery and genuine discrimination and genuine oppression in the world, there is also a great deal of parallel abuse of those good people who want to stop it and ensure a fairer world for all. It is one thing to be freed from oppression and exploitation; it is quite another to use someone else’s oppression to advantage yourself. Having genuine victims in a community does not justify a free pass for that entire community any more than prejudice is justified against an entire community because of the actions of a few.

However, that seems to be the road we have been travelling. In trying to fight prejudice, sometimes we end up with privileged treatment for certain social groups. A small temporary overshoot is fine, as long as a level playing field eventually comes. The problem is when overshoot and privilege produces lasting barriers. When special treatment is available, it inevitably becomes a source of tribal competition and conflict and reinforces barriers instead of removing them.

If people have to stick to special vocabulary on pain of losing their career, if they are forced to censor everything they say or write or do to avoid causing offence to the easily or intentionally or even professionally offended or attracting criticism from sanctimonious busybodies or even the police, then instead of tribal boundaries being wiped away and social cohesion and inclusion  improving, communication between groups and between individuals drops, barriers grow and are reinforced, stresses rise, and social inclusion drops and loneliness increases.

Protection of the disadvantaged is a noble cause, but it must be restricted to those that are actually disadvantaged and it must stop once protection is effective. If it is allowed to increase beyond equality or extend to entire social groups, or if privilege remains permanent, then it causes division and reverse oppression.

This matters. Tribalism is a big problem. Loneliness is a massive social problem. People need to communicate, they need friends. If they don’t feel free to speak due to (possibly exaggerated) fear of possible condemnation, then they may self-censor, keep their thoughts to themselves, restrict their social activities, withdraw and become isolated and lonely. That is not a healthy trend.

Censorship is increasing rapidly. Surveillance is increasing rapidly too, especially including social surveillance in media such as twitter and Facebook by both police and random busybodies. Quality of relationships online is generally lower than face to face relationships, and loneliness is already increasing. Adding to that will make it worse and worse.

Left unaddressed, this problem looks set to worsen. Barriers are growing, and being locked in place, then cameras and microphones are being added to the barriers. Meanwhile, penalties are increasing. A single word that is merely out of date and otherwise innocently used can destroy a career.

All nice people want a nice world where everyone is treated fairly and oppression has vanished. We should avoid offending people unnecessarily, but we must also be forgiving when no offence is intended or a word is no more than an innocent slip of the tongue. We need to be far better at dealing with specific instances of disadvantage or oppression and far less willing to grant long-term privileges to entire social groups. And most of all, we need to restore true freedom of speech or suffer some pretty big social problems.

Make no mistake. The busybodies and the deliberately offended are the new Spanish Inquisition. We really don’t want them in charge.


Web censorship will force next generation nets

Twitter are the latest in a line of surrenders to authority  in the last few years. The web started off nicely and grew in importance and everyone talked of how governments couldn’t censor it, and it would always bypass them. It was the new land of the free. But underneath, we all knew that wouldn’t last forever and governments would use their real world power to force web companies into submission. Actually, the surrenders seem rather spineless to me, and were unnecessary, but I guess the web has become a standard ordinary everyday business platform and the companies behave just like any other business now. The brave explorers pushing out in pursuit of the frontiers have gone, replaced by MBAs.

Napster was the first biggy, forced to stop music sharing on the free and to become a proper commercial front end for the music industry. Then Google surrendered its ‘Do no evil’ principle to commercialism, first in China, now globally. It has since become a Big Brother in its own right, collecting deep data not only for its own megalomania but also for any government department that can make ‘a valid legal claim’ (extracted from their new rules on privacy). I have no real choice but to carry on using their mail and search, and I still like Google in spite of their abuses – no one’s perfect – though I am extremely wary of using Google+ seriously. I barely access my account, just like Facebook, and for the same reasons. Facebook and Apple also both became Big Brothers, collecting far more date than most people realised, wanting their own high-walled garden dictatorships. They have them now, but I keep my distance and only visit them as much as I need to. After a few years of ongoing high-profile collapses and surrenders of principle, now Twitter has surrendered too. So now the web is under government control, pretty much everywhere, and worse still, with a layer of big corporate control underneath. Companies on the web have to do as they are told, follow the rules. But they also impose their own too. It is the worst nightmare for those of us who used to debate whether big companies or governments would end up controlling us, which would have the power? We ended up with the worst of both worlds.

Many would argue that that is what should be. Why should the web have different rules? All companies should obey the law. I’d agree to a point, but I’d agree a whole lot more if we lived in a world with good leaders of properly democratic governments taking us forwards to a life of freedom and health and prosperity for all. What I see instead is a global flock of very poor leaders, a sad combination of the greedy, the corrupt and the stupid, with increasing oppression, increasing polarisation, grabbing what they can for themselves in a less fair world, and more attempts to control our thoughts.

So I tend to lean towards wanting a new kind of web, one that governments can’t control so easily, where freedom of speech and freedom of thought can be maintained. If a full surveillance world prevents us from speaking, then we need to make another platform on which we can speak freely.

I’ve written a number of times about jewellery nets and sponge nets. These could do the trick. With very short-range communication directly between tiny devices that each of us wears just like jewellery, a sponge network can be built that provides zillions of paths from A to B, hopping from device to device till it gets there.

A sponge net doesn’t need any ISPs. (In fact, I’ve never really understood why the web needs them either, it is perfectly possible to build a web without them). Each device is autonomous. Each shares data with its immediate neighbours, and route dynamically according to a range of algorithms available to them. They can route data from A to B so that every packet goes by a different route of need be. Even without any encryption, only A and B can see the full message. The various databases that the web uses to tell packets where their destination is can be distributed. There is a performance price, but so what? You could even route geographically. Knowing the precise geographic location of your recipient, packets can simply use a map or GPS to get there. I’m not aware of any GPS based nets yet, but you could easily build one. I quite like the idea personally.

Self organisation is an easy way of linking processing and storage and sensory capability into massively capable platforms. This is useful in its own right but also enables better file sharing or free speech with reasonable performance. It would be easy to bypass any monitoring if it is detected. Even if it is only suspected, the massively divergent routing that sponges enable would make monitoring extremely hard to do.

The capability to make these kinds of devices is almost here. Given the world that we live in, governments might try hard to prevent them from existing. But there are so many benign reasons to do so that it might be hard for them to resist the pressure. Almost all of the spirit of the early web was aimed at making the world a better place. Sure a few criminals and terrorists got in on the act, but the balance was for good. We lost it, and are worse off for it. Letting it happen again would be good for everyone. Sponge nets can do that. If some government officials don’t like it, well, so what? Right now, I don’t have a lot of respect for government.