Samaritans Radar: misunderstanding privacy and ‘publicness’

The furore over the launch of the Samaritans Radar app has many dimensions: whether it’s ethical, whether it will help, whether it will chill – putting vulnerable people off using Twitter, whether it’s legal – there are huge data protection issues – are just a start. Many excellent pieces have been written about it from all these angles, and they almost all leave me thinking that the whole thing is misconceived, however positive its motivations may be.

I’m not going to go over much of these, but want to look at one particular angle where it seems to me that the creators of the app have made a fundamental misunderstanding. To recap, once someone authorises the Samaritans Radar app, that app will automatically scan the tweets of all the people that person follows, looking for signs in those tweets of potentially worrying words or phrases: triggers that suggest that the tweeter may be at risk. The tweeter does not know that their tweets are being scanned, as it’s only the person who’s authorised the app whose consent has been sought – and it’s important to remember that we don’t generally have control over who follows us. Yes, we can block people, but that often seems an overly aggressive act. I very rarely block, for example.

The logic behind the Samaritans Radar approach to privacy is simple: tweets are ‘public’, therefore they’re fair game to be scanned and analysed. Their response to suggestions that this might not be right is that people always have the option of making their twitter accounts private – thus effectively locking themselves out of the ‘public’ part of Twitter. On the surface this is logical – but only if you think that ‘private-public’ is a two-valued, black-and-white issue. Either something is ‘public’ and available to all, or it’s ‘private’ and hidden. Privacy, both in the ‘real’ world and on Twitter, doesn’t work like that. It’s far more complex and nuanced than that – and anyone who thinks in those simple terms is fundamentally misunderstanding privacy.

The two extremes are fairly obvious. If you sit in a TV studio on a live programme being broadcast to millions, everything you say is clearly public. If you’re in a private, locked room with one other person, and have sworn them to secrecy, what you say is clearly private. Between the two, however, there is a whole spectrum, and defining precisely where things fit is hard. You can have an intimate, private conversation in a public place – whispering to a friend in a pub, for example. Anyone who’s been to a football match, or been on a protest march, knows theoretically that it’s a public place, but might well have private conversations, whether wisely or not. Chatting around the dinner table when you don’t know all the guests – where would that fit in? In law, we can analyse what we call a ‘reasonable expectation of privacy’, but it’s not always an easy analysis – and many people who might be potentially interested in the Samaritans should not be expected to understand the nuances of the law, or even the technicalities of Twitter.

On Twitter, too, we have very different expectations of how ‘visible’ or obscure what we tweet might be. We’re not all Stephen Fry, with millions of followers and an expectation that everything we write is read by everyone. Very much the opposite. We know how many followers we have – and some might assume, quite reasonably, that this is a fair representation of how many people might see our Tweet. It’s very different having 12 followers to having 12 million – and there are vastly more at the bottom end. Indeed, analysis at the end of 2013 suggested that 60% of active Twitter accounts have less than 100 followers, and 97% have less than 1000. That, to start with, suggests that most Twitter users might quite reasonably imagine that their tweets are only seen by a relatively small number of people – particularly as at any time only a fraction of those who follow you may be online and bother to read your tweet.

Further, not all tweets are equally visible – and experienced tweeters should know that. There are ways to make your tweets a little more intimate, and ways to make them more easily visible. If you tweet in response to someone, and leave their twitter tag at the start of the tweet, it will only appear on the timelines of people that follow both you and the person you are responding.  That’s why people sometimes put a ‘.’ in front of the tag.

A tweet like this, for example, would only be immediately visible to the tweeters named, and people who follow all three of us, which is not likely to be a very large number.

Screen Shot 2014-11-01 at 09.44.00

If I had put a ‘.’ (or indeed any other characters) in front of @ABeautifulMind1, it would have been visible to all of the 9,000+ people who follow me. I made the decision not to do that – choosing to limit the visibility of the tweet. Having a semi-private conversation in a very public forum. Of course other people could find the tweet, but it would be harder – just as other people could hear a conversation on a public street, but it would be harder.

You can do the reverse, and try to make your tweet more rather than less visible. Adding a hashtag, for example, highlights the tweet to people following that hashtag – live tweeting my anger at BBC Question Time by adding the hashtag #bbcqt, for example. I could mention the name of a prominent tweeter, in the hope that they would read the tweet and choose to re-tweet it to their thousands or millions of followers. I could even ‘direct-message’ someone asking them to retweet my tweet as a special favour. All of these things can and do change the visibility – and, in effect, the publicness of the tweet.

Some people will understand all this. Some people won’t. Some people will have the two-valued idea about privacy that seems to underlie the Samaritans Radar logic – but, by both their thoughts and their actions, most people are unlikely to. We don’t all guard our thoughts on Twitter – indeed, that’s part of its attraction and part of its benefit for people with mental health issues, or indeed people potentially interested in the services of the Samaritans. Many people use twitter for their private conversations in the pub – and that’s great. Anyone who uses Twitter often, and anyone with any understanding of vulnerable people should know that – and see beyond the technical question of whether a tweet is ‘public’ or not.

The Samaritans responded to some of these questions, after their initial and depressing ‘you can lock your account’ response, by suggesting that people could join a ‘white list’ that says their tweets should not be scanned by Samaritans Radar – but that doesn’t just fail to solve the real issue, it might even exacerbate them. First of all, you have to be aware that you’re being scanned in order to want to be on the white list. Secondly, you’re adding yourself to a list – and not only is that list potentially vulnerable (both to misuse and to being acquired, somehow, by people with less than honourable motives), but the very idea of being added to yet another list is off-putting in the extreme. Anyone with negative experiences of the mental health services, for example, would immediately worry that being on that list marks you out as ‘of interest’. We don’t like lists, and with good reason.

At the very least, the system should be the other way around – you should have to actively ‘opt-in’ to being scanned. Having an opt-in system would be closer to the Samaritans’ role: the person would say ‘please, watch me, look after me’, as though they were phoning Samaritans. Even then, it’s far from perfect, as a decision to let people watch you at one point may not be relevant later. People’s minds change, their sensitivity changes, their level of trust changes. They should be able to revoke that decision to be watched – but even making them do that could be a negative. Why should it be up to them to say ‘stop scanning me’? With sensitive, vulnerable people, that could be yet another straw on the camel’s back.

Personally, I’d like the Samaritans to withdraw the app and have a rethink. This isn’t just a theoretical exercise, or a bit of neat technology – these are real issues for real people. It needs sensitivity, it needs care, it needs a willingness to admit ‘Oh, we hadn’t realise that, and we were wrong.’ With Samaritans Radar, I think the Samaritans have really got it wrong, in many ways. The privacy and publicness issue is just one of them. It does, however, add weight to the feeling that this whole idea was misconceived.

Mr Bigot’s Halloween….

MR BIGOTs Halloween cover

 

 

Mr Bigot liked Halloween.

It was one of his favourite celebrations. Mr Bigot liked scaring people – it was one of his favourite activities. Only that morning he’d tried to scare all the listeners to a radio programme about how all those nasty immigrants were coming over here to take their jobs, to claim huge amounts of money in benefits, to destroy their health service, fill their schools, and much, much more. Just like every other morning.

Oh yes, Mr Bigot liked Halloween a lot. And this Halloween was going to be particularly special. UKIP had organised a very special party. Mr Bigot was really looking forward to it.

He didn’t really need a costume. He was scary enough as it was – and he knew it. Just a set of fangs and a cloak would do. He could put on a Romanian accent – everyone knew Romanians were scary. Oh yes. Terrifying.

The party was happening at one of London’s best clubs. Mr Bigot was a member – as were a number of his friends. There wouldn’t be any riffraff let in.

Mr Bigot didn’t like riffraff. Oh, he always liked a good photo-shoot with common people, but that was quite enough. Mr Bigot liked to portray himself as a man of the people, but really he wasn’t sure he liked people very much.

He put on his cloak and fitted his fangs as he approached the club, and smiled spookily at the liveried man at the door. The man smiled back and touched his top hat deferentially, welcoming Mr Bigot in. Mr Bigot found him entering a place of wonder: the entire club had been decked out in a spectacularly spooky style. There were heavy cobwebs on every chandelier, jack-o-lanterns on every window sill, curtains of black velvet and much, much more. Long tables were filled with silver platters filled with steaming food. The aroma was wonderful.

MR BIGOTs Halloween blank

One of Mr Bigot’s oldest friends, dressed up as Frankenstein’s monster, complete with bolt, lurched quickly across the room to greet him with a strange kind of smile. Mr Bigot leaned over to him.

“Looks great, old boy,” Mr Bigot whispered, “must have cost a pretty penny.”

“Oh,” said his friend, “no need to worry about that. Thanks to our new Polish friend, we’re quids in these days.”

His friend pointed across the room to a slightly disreputable looking fellow dressed in a black military uniform. The man smiled and gave a straight armed salute. Mr Bigot smiled back.

Then Mr Bigot took a closer look around the room. People were dressed in all kinds of different costumes. There were a few witches, a lot of skeletons, and plenty of zombies – though those might just have been some of the party members who hadn’t read their invitations carefully enough to realise it was supposed to be fancy dress.

Then Mr Bigot had an uncomfortable thought. He whispered again to his Frankenstein’s monster friend.

“There aren’t any reporters here, are there?”

“Oh no, Mr Bigot,” his friend replied. “Just Nick and David over there, and they can be trusted completely.”

Mr Bigot looked over to where his friend was pointed, and there were Nick Robinson and David Dimbleby, rather poorly disguised as neutral, independent journalists, sipping at their drinks and sharing a laugh.

MR BIGOTs Halloween close

“Excellent,” said Mr Bigot with a smile. “Now, I really need a drink!”

“Beer?”

“God no,” said Mr Bigot, “do you know how many photo-shoots I’ve done today? I’m sick of the taste of the stuff. Get me a claret, and a good one.”

While he waited for his friend to bring him his drink, Mr Bigot wandered around the room, listening to the undead band playing UKIP Calypso, and chatting with a few of the more unusually dressed guests. The first he came to was dressed in a pink shirt and very tight trousers, and had an obviously false handlebar moustache.

“What have you come as?” Mr Bigot asked.

“I am a gay Bulgarian,” the man said with a guffaw. “Scary, eh?”

“Very,” Mr Bigot agreed, “just don’t go getting married – we could do without more floods!”

“How about you?” Mr Bigot asked the next one, who was blacked up and wearing rags.

“I have Ebola,” the man replied, with a faux African accent almost as good as Mike Read’s Jamaican one.

“We should never have let you in,” Mr Bigot laughed, “or anyone like you.”

Mr Bigot strolled past a pair dressed in business suits with blue ties with yellow stars, wearing blank face masks. Eurocrats, of course. Another had even come as José Manuel Barroso.

MR BIGOTs Halloween closer

Just as Frankenstein’s monster lurched up with his drink, Mr Bigot saw another costume he couldn’t quite place. Skin darker than Mr Bigot was comfortable with, torn clothes soaking wet, heavy fronds of seaweed draped over his shoulders and head. The man saw him staring and smiled.

“I’m a drowning migrant in the Mediterranean,” he said, and Mr Bigot grimaced.

“Damn those Tories,” he muttered under his breath, “why did they think of that idea first? It’s brilliant.”

The drink tasted a little strange to Mr Bigot – not a claret at all, but some kind of mulled wine, thick with spice. Mr Bigot took a large swig, and felt the drink go straight to his head. He shook himself, wondering what was coming over him, and went to sit down in a large, comfortable arm chair. It had been a long day. He was tired. He drank down the rest of his drink and leant back in his chair, closing his eyes.

When he opened them, he found a strange man approaching him. The man was unshaven, and wearing a T-shirt with ‘LBC’ in small letters on the chest. In his hand he held a microphone, attached to some kind of tape recorder. What’s going on? thought Mr Bigot. I thought there were no reporters here. Then he relaxed. It must be a costume. The man’s first words confirmed it.

“I’ve come as James O’Brien,” the man said with a smile, “I thought you might find it scary.” Mr Bigot couldn’t help a silent shudder – he still remembered being ambushed on LBC. Whoever this was, he had a nasty sense of humour. Should go far.

MR BIGOTs Halloween closest

“Perhaps,” the man said, “I could give you a quick interview?”

“Of course,” replied Mr Bigot with a sharp-fanged smile. The man held out his faux microphone, clicked a button on his faux tape recorder and started asking questions. Boring stuff to start with, just like most interviews. How nice it must feel to be so high in the polls, to have one MP and another on the way. Mr Bigot gave the usual answers – he could do this in his sleep.

“You must be delighted that the public has realised,” the interviewer said, “that immigrants are responsible for so many problems – taking away jobs, costing a fortune in benefits, destroying our health services and so on.”

Mr Bigot smiled again, but then, to his complete surprise found himself saying something he hadn’t planned. And laughing.

“Surely you don’t actually believe that,” Mr Bigot couldn’t stop himself saying, “do you? I mean, even I don’t believe that. I know very well that immigration doesn’t cost jobs, or any of that other rot. Are you stupid? I’m not. This is politics, matey.”

Mr Bigot felt thick-headed. It must have been the drink. And yet he still couldn’t stop himself.

“It’s brilliant, isn’t it? So many dopes take what we say at face value. All those idiots vote for us – it’s worse than turkeys voting for Christmas. I mean, workers vote for us though we want to take away their rights! As though anything we say would make any difference at all except to make their lives harder, and make us richer. We know it’s rot, you know it’s rot. But better to blame Johnny Foreigner than my mates in the banks. And when they vote for us, we get all this,” he waved his hand around the opulent surroundings. “There’s no gravy-train like the Brussels gravy-train,” he finished, “and long may it continue.”

“What?” said the interviewer, “don’t you want us to leave the EU?”

“God no,” said Mr Bigot with a laugh, “if we leave we all know business will be down the tubes – and all these lovely expenses will stop flowing. Still, we’ve got to keep saying we want to leave. That’s the point, isn’t it?”

“And immigration? What about immigration?”

“If we don’t have immigration,” Mr Bigot found himself saying, “where will I get my chauffeurs from? Where will we find women to clean behind the fridges? Just so long as immigrants are properly frightened, that’s good enough for me. That way we can pay them a pittance and they’ll have to accept it. And just as long as there’s enough hate and fear to keep people distracted, everything’s just the way I want it.”

The man pressed the button on his tape recorder and suddenly looked stern. “That’s great,” he said with a sly smile. “You do realise that I really am James O’Brien, I hope? This will be great on the LBC news.”

MR BIGOTs Halloween closest white

Mr Bigot’s face went white. He felt cold inside. What on earth had made him say all of that? It wasn’t like him at all. He was usually so good at keeping up the pretence. Even when he made little slips he got over them with a laugh and a smile. This time, though, he couldn’t see how he could do that. It was a nightmare. A complete nightmare. He closed his eyes and could feel the tears begin to come. What a horrible Halloween.

Suddenly he felt an arm on his shoulder. He opened his eyes. James O’Brien was nowhere to be seen. Instead, Frankenstein’s monster stood before him.

“Are you alright, Mr Bigot?” his friend whispered. “I think you must have dozed off for a while.”

“But…” Mr Bigot shook himself. Had it all been a dream? Had he imagined it all? He sighed, long and slow, the composed himself. It must have been. Oh, it had felt scary – but there was no real need to be scared – at least not for Mr Bigot. The rest of the country, well they had plenty to be scared about.

For everyone else, the nightmare had only just begun.

MR BIGOTs Halloween cover

 

 

Words by @paulbernalUK, art by @kaiserofcrisps and @paulbernalUK

For the original Mr Bigot, see here.

Immigration, xenophobia and racism…

Every so often, these days, someone says something about immigration that makes me think about racism, xenophobia, or both. Often it’s someone from UKIP, but recently Tory politicians have been joining in pretty regularly – and even Lib Dems and Labourites have been triggering the same reaction in me. Whenever I mention this on Twitter, in amongst the other reactions there will pretty much every time be someone who says something like ‘why does someone wanting to limit or control immigration have to be racist or xenophobic?’

The answer I generally give is that of course they don’t – but these days, all too often, the reasons behind such statements have racism or xenophobia in the background. That is, not all those people wanting to control or limit immigration are racists or xenophobes, but a lot of xenophobes or racists use the relative respectability of opposition to immigration as a cover story from xenophobia or racism.

I had three interesting altercations of this kind on Twitter last week – from what I remember, they came after the revelation that UKIP had done a deal with a Polish MEP who happened to be a Holocaust Denier. In all three cases, the starting point was a seemingly rational objection to immigration. I engaged with the argument – I don’t always, because these kinds of arguments can be exhausting and depressing – and in all three cases the ending was memorable. The first finished with the suggestion that Labour councils had been engaging in ‘ethnic cleansing of whites’ (the words of my opponent). The second peaked with the remarkable statement that everything always goes downhill when the proportion of whites in an area goes below 60% – a ‘fact’ that I was assured couldn’t be racist because my opponent has been told it by a black person. The third argument was much more rational, and specifically about immigration from the EU. It ended with a suggestion that one of the biggest problems with EU immigration was that communities didn’t integrate. When I pushed on this point, asking which EU communities didn’t integrate, the answer came Poles and West Africans. Aside from my own experience of the Poles as integrating very well into British society (as they have since their great contribution to the Battle of Britain), the way that West Africans somehow fitted the ‘EU migration’ story made that old feeling of racism and xenophobia come back again.

It happened again when I read of Michael Fallon’s comments of towns feeling ‘swamped’ and ‘under siege’ by EU immigrants. If he really was talking about EU immigrants, what was it that made him feel ‘swamped’? Too many Polish shops on his high street? Too many shopping aisles in his local Tesco with Eastern European specialist products on them? Hearing Czech spoken at the bus stop? Does he think he can tell an Eastern European from a Western European just by looking at them – I mean, Nigel Farage may be able to ‘know the difference’ between a Romanian and a German, but…

To me it feels like dog whistle politics. When Fallon talks about feeling under siege, he means that ‘they’ look different from ‘us’. ‘We’ should feel threatened by ‘them’. That’s feeding into racism and xenophobia – and I’m afraid that’s all too common in the anti-immigrant rhetoric going around at the moment. That’s where the ‘too many black faces’ talk comes from, the ‘ethnic cleansing of whites’, the ‘going downhill when the White faces go below 60%’, and the non-integration of West Africans goes. And whilst we’re at it, non-integrations is often a cypher in itself. It suggests people shouldn’t talk their own languages, even amongst themselves, shouldn’t wear any clothes that aren’t ‘British’ enough – and certainly shouldn’t practice any religion other than Christianity openly.

Of course there are rational arguments against immigration – though most of them fall apart under serious scrutiny. Those twin myths of ‘health tourism’ and ‘benefit tourism’ keep being trotted out though the figures show they’re negligible – and indeed immigrants tend to be younger, healthier and less likely to claim benefits than non-immigrants, as well as contributing more in taxes than they cost in terms of health and benefits. ‘They’ aren’t taking ‘our’ jobs either – in general immigration creates as many jobs as it takes, and boosts the economy. The problem problems we have with housing are connected with chronic underinvestment and a dysfunctional market – not immigration.

All this, however, is lost in the morass of misinformation, much of it fuelled by racism and xenophobia. What are also lost in this mess are the real causes of the real problems in places like Clacton, Rochester and elsewhere. Whilst focussing on the immigrants, the unscrupulous landlords, dodgy employers and tax-avoiding rich people and companies who mess up the housing market, pay poverty wages and massively reduce the tax take necessary to make the investments those communities need, are laughing all the way to their off-shore banks. Politicians wreaking havoc through austerity and ‘reform’ are left to enjoy their subsidised drinks in the Commons’ bars. The real villains are happy to see immigrants and immigration take the blame. Of course they are.

So no, talking about wanting to limit or control immigration isn’t racist or xenophobic – but plenty of xenophobes and racists talk about wanting to control immigration. And plenty of others are selfish enough to encourage them to do so, because it keeps their own actions away from the limelight. It keeps them from being held to account – and it allows the story to keep on going in exactly the same way. The side effects of the encouragement of racism and xenophobia are hideous, and the damage it does to us as a whole, as a culture, as a community, is incalculable. It divides, it stigmatises, it spreads suspicion, distrust and fear. It’s what makes people suspect any Muslim could be a terrorist, every African a carrier of Ebola, every Serb a war criminal, every Romanian a thief. It diminishes all of us. That it’s allowed to grow, to fester, is something that makes me, for one, deeply sad.

Valuing the human…

When I heard that UKIP had forged an alliance with a Polish MEP who was, amongst other things, a Holocaust denier, a man who joked about beating wives and beating children, who thought disabled people shouldn’t be on TV, and that had described Hitler as a ‘rascal’, my first reaction was to sigh. Not because these things aren’t terrible – but because they are, and they’re sadly typical of something I see in so many places. It’s about a failure to place value on the human, but instead only on certain people.

The whole nature of the Holocaust was about that – and so is Holocaust denial. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think UKIP is a party of Holocaust deniers – though I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there were a few in UKIP’s ranks – but that they don’t think Holocaust denial is such a big deal. Certainly not a ‘deal breaker’, as they’ve demonstrated by making their deal. Why would you not think it was a big deal? The most obvious reason is that the millions of deaths, the brutal and systematic nature of those deaths – not just of Jews but of Roma, of Slavs, of disabled people and others – simply don’t matter that much to you. For some people such an attitude is almost inconceivable – but for others, it seems long ago, those ‘people’ don’t really register as important enough to make a difference. They’re not valued.

Holocaust denial is one of the most obvious, but the failure to place value in the human is in all those other things. You can only joke about ‘wife beating’ if you don’t really value women – they don’t quite class as human, somewhere in your mind. The same for beating children. Saying that disabled people shouldn’t appear on TV can only really be because disabled people don’t count as quite, well, people. Human. And it’s part of a bigger pattern. Racism, ultimately, means thinking that people of one race are less valuable than others. Xenophobia, of the kind demonstrated by UKIP towards Romanians and Bulgarians, for example, says the same. ‘You know the difference’, as Nigel Farage said to James O’Brien, comparing Romanians to his German wife, is about valuing one kind of human above another.

It’s not just UKIP. Lord Freud’s comments about some disabled people being ‘worth’ less than the minimum wage has the same origin – and in some ways a more pernicious one. It takes the idea of value to a more calculated level, treating people not as humans but as ‘assets’ whose only ‘worth’ is their ability to contribute as productive economic units – and as a result finds them wanting. It’s not just treating disabled people as less than human – it’s treating all of us as less than human. It’s not valuing humanity at all. Labour’s Rachel Reeves gets in on the act too. In her recent speech on social security began by talking about ‘decent, hardworking people’ – which implies that there are some people who are not as valuable. Not decent. Not working hard enough – and hence not as valuable, not as worthy. That would include people who can’t work as hard – disabled people for example, older people, kids – and people whose lives are not filled with what is commonly described as ‘work': carers are perhaps the most obvious example, the majority of whom are women. These people, the indecent, non-‘hardworking’ people are seen as less ‘valuable’ than the decent, hardworking people, who ‘deserve’ support. The value’s in the ‘decency’ and the ‘hardworking’, not the ‘people’. Not the human.

That’s also why the Tories can see an attack on ‘human rights’ as something that’s not just politically acceptable but politically valuable. Many people seem to think that there isn’t any value in the human, just in certain kinds of human.  That’s why the recent survey that suggests many more Britons think that they should have the right to work anywhere in Europe than think Europeans should have the right to work in the UK. It makes sense – if you understand that we Brits are inherently more valuable, more worthy, more trustworthy than all those dodgy foreigners. We brought civilisation to the world, you know, of course we’re better than those Europeans – particularly those dodgy Romanians and Bulgarians, who are mostly beggars and thieves anyway. Even if people don’t articulate it in those terms, that’s what underlies it. ‘We’ are better than ‘them’.

We seem to see just the differences, and use them to ascribe value. We forget the human, and undervalue it. That’s why UKIP can just shrug off the Holocaust denial and the wife beating jokes. That’s why the casual racism inherent in the UKIP Calypso doesn’t matter – and why even if Lord Freud does eventually lose his job, the attitudes towards disabled people are seen by far too many as just common sense and economic reality. That, to me, is deeply sad.

Trolls, threats, the law and deterrence…

trollhunter600

“Internet trolls face up to two years in jail under new laws” screamed the headline on the BBC’s website yesterday, after Chris Grayling decided to “take a stand against a baying cyber-mob”. It’s not the first time that so-called ‘trolls’ have been made the subject of a government ‘stand’ – and a media furore. This particular one arose after TV presenter Chloë Madeley suffered online abuse – that abuse itself triggered by the comments about rape made by her mother, Judy Finnigan, also a TV presenter, on Loose Women.

Twitter ‘trolls’ seem to be a big theme at the moment. Just a few weeks ago we had the tragic case of Brenda Leyland, who it appears committed suicide after being doorstepped by Sky News, accused of ‘trolling’ the parents of Madeleine McCann. A month ago, Peter Nunn was jailed for 18 weeks after a series of abusive tweets aimed at MP Stella Creasy. There are others – not forgetting the ongoing saga of GamerGate (one of my favourite posts on this is here), though that seems to be far bigger news in the US than it is here in the UK. The idea of a troll isn’t something new, and it doesn’t seem to be going away. Nothing’s very clear, though – and what I’ve set out below is very much my personal view.

What is a troll?

There’s still doubt about where the term comes from. It’s not clear that it refers to the kind of beast in the picture above – from the weirdly wonderful Norwegian film ‘Trollhunter’. A few years ago, I was certain it came from a totally different source – ‘trolling’, a kind of fishing where you trail a baited line behind your boat as you row, hoping that some fish comes along and bites it – but I understand now that even that’s in doubt. Most people think of monsters – perhaps hiding under bridges, ready to be knocked off them by billy goats, or perhaps huge, stupid Tolkeinian hulks – but what they are on the internet seems very contentious. In the old days, again, trolls were often essentially harmless – teasing, annoying, trying to get a rise out of people. The kind of thing that I might do on twitter by writing a poem about UKIP, for example – but what happens now can be quite different. The level of nastiness can get seriously extreme – from simple abuse to graphic threats of rape and murder. The threats can be truly hideous – and, from my perspective at least, if you haven’t been a victim of this kind of thing, it’s not possible to really understand what it’s like. I’ve seen some of the tweets – but only a tiny fraction, and I know that what I’ve seen is far from the worst.

The law

The first thing to say is that Grayling’s announcement doesn’t actually seem to be anything new: the ‘quadrupling of sentences’ was brought in in March this year, as an amendment to the Malicious Communications Act 1988.  This is just one of a number of laws that could apply to some of the activities that are described as ‘trolling’. Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 is another, which includes the provision that a person is guilty of an offence if he: “sends by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character”.  The infamous ‘Twitter Joke Trial’ of Paul Chambers was under this Act. There have also been convictions for social media posting under the Public Order Act 1986 Section 4A, which makes it an offence to “…with intent to cause a person harassment, alarm or distress…  use[s] threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or …displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting,” Then there’s the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, and potentially Defamation Law too (though that’s civil rather than criminal law).  The law does apply to the internet, and plenty of so-called ‘trolls’ have been prosecuted – and indeed jailed.

What is a threat?

One of the most common reactions that I’ve seen when these issues come up is to say that ‘threats’ should be criminalised, but ‘offensive language’ should not. It’s quite right that freedom of speech should include the freedom to be offensive – if we only allow speech that we agree with, that’s not freedom of speech at all. The problem is that it’s not always possible to tell what is a threat and what is just an offensive opinion – or even a joke. If we think jokes are ‘OK’, then people who really are threatening and offensive will try to say that what they said was just a joke – Peter Nunn did so about his tweets to Stella Creasy. If we try to set rules about what is an opinion and what is a threat, we may find that those who want to threaten couch their language in a way that makes it possible to argue that it’s an opinion.

For example, tweeting to someone that you’re going to rape and murder them is clearly a threat, but tweeting to a celebrity who’s had naked pictures leaked onto the internet that ‘celebrities who take naked pictures of themselves deserve to be raped’ could, potentially, be argued to be an opinion, however offensive. And yet it would almost certainly actually be a threat. A little ‘cleverness’ with language can mask a hideous threat – a threat with every bit as nasty an effect on the person receiving it. It’s not just the words, it’s the context, it’s the intent. It’s whether it’s part of a concerted campaign – or a spontaneous twitter storm.

One person’s troll is another person’s freedom fighter…

The other thing that’s often missed here is that many (perhaps most) so-called trolls wouldn’t consider themselves to be trolls. Indeed, quite the opposite. A quick glance at GamerGate shows that: many of those involved think they’re fighting for survival against forces of oppression. There’s the same story elsewhere: those involved in the so-called ‘trolling’ of the McCanns would (and do) say that they’re campaigning to expose a miscarriage of justice, to fight on behalf of a dead child. Whether someone’s a terrorist or a freedom fighter can depend on the perspective – and that means that laws presented in terms like those used by Grayling used are even less likely to have any kind of deterrent effect. If you don’t consider yourself a troll, why would a law against trolls have any impact?

Whether increasing sentences has any deterrent effect to start with is also deeply questionable. Do those ‘trolling’ even consider the possible sentence? Do they know that what they’re doing is against the law – even with the many laws enumerated above, and the series of convictions under them, many seem to think that the law doesn’t really apply on the internet. Many believe (falsely) that their ‘anonymity’ will protect them – despite the evidence that it won’t. It’s hard to see that sentences are likely to make any real difference at all to ‘trolling’.

There are no silver bullets…

The problem is, that there really isn’t a simple answer to the various things that are labelled ‘trolling’. A change in law won’t make the difference on its own. A change in technology won’t make a difference on its own – those who think that better enforcement by Twitter themselves will make everything OK are sadly far too optimistic. What’s more, any tools – legal or technological – can be used by the wrong people in the wrong way as well as by the right people in the right way. Put in a better abuse reporting system and the ‘trolls’ themselves will use it to report their erstwhile ‘victims’ for abuse. What used to be called ‘flame wars’ where two sides of an argument continually accuse the others of abuse still exist. Laws will be misused – the Twitter Joke Trial is just one example of the prosecutors really missing the point.

There is no simple ‘right’ answer. The various problems lumped together under the vague and misleading term ‘trolling’ are complex societal problems – so solving them is a complex process. Making the law work better is one tiny part – and that doesn’t mean just making it harsher. Indeed, my suspicion is that the kind of pronouncement that Chris Grayling made is likely to make things worse, not better: it doesn’t help understanding at all, and understanding is the most important thing. If we don’t know what we mean by the term ‘troll’, and we don’t understand why people do it, how can we solve – or at least reduce – the problems that arise?

Posturing – and obscuring

The thing is, I’m not convinced that the politicians necessarily even want to solve these problems. Internet trolls are very convenient villains – they’re scary, they’re hidden, they’re dangerous, they’re new, they’re nasty. It’s very easy for the fog of fear to be built up very quickly when internet trolling comes up as a subject. Judy Finnigan’s original (and in my view deeply offensive) remarks about Ched Evans’ rape conviction have been hidden under this troll-fog. Trolls make a nice soundbite, a nice headline – and they’re in some ways classical ‘folk devils’ upon which to focus anger and hate. Brenda Leyland’s death was a stark reminder of how serious this can get. A little more perspective, a little more intelligence and a little less posturing could really help here.

Politics, surveillance and trust….

ThemistoclesThemistocles grinned; it made me like him. “There you see it – that’s how we do it here. Among you Medes, I’m told, there are many men so honorable that everyone trusts them. We’re not like that at all – we never trust one another. So what we do instead is make sure that each side’s represented, so that every rascal’s got two worse looking over his shoulder.”

Gene Wolfe, Soldier of Arete.

I’ve always liked those words, put into the mouth of Themistocles by Gene Wolfe. Soldier of Arete is one of my favourite books – giving a very different perspective on the Ancient Greeks. Wolfe tries (and for me succeeds) to give a sense of what life might really have been like – not a place of divine nobility or unattainable grace, but a place inhabited by real people. Themistocles was one of the most successful of Athenian generals and politicians – someone around at the early days of what we these days call democracy. Wolfe’s version of Themistocles is a very much a likeable character, and a very grounded one. His view of democracy, of honour and of trust is one that seems both very real and very appropriate even for these days. Honour and trust are all very well, but for things to work well, we always need someone looking over people’s shoulders.

That’s particularly relevant to surveillance. ‘Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?’, to borrow another classical source. Who watches the watchmen? At the Intelligence and Security Committee ’round table’ sessions on Tuesday (about which I wrote here) it was one of the key issues – as were the issues of honour and trust. The first question that Sir Malcolm Rifkind asked at our table was whether we thought the intelligence services acted with ‘good faith’. I understood him to mean, essentially, whether we trusted them. Whether we thought they were honourable people. My answer was that I did think they were acting in good faith – but that that is not enough. I’m not like the Mede with which Themistocles was talking in Soldier of Arete, who thought some people are so honourable that they can be trusted completely. Good faith is a good start, but it’s not nearly enough. Limits on surveillance, controls, balances and strong oversight are still needed, no matter whether the intelligence services are acting in ‘good faith;’, and regardless of whether they are honourable, trustworthy people. Even the most able and honourable people need to be overseen. They make mistakes. They can be misled. They can be confused. They can be given poor information and make inappropriate decisions. And are we sure they are honourable and acting in good faith? It doesn’t matter if almost all of them are – even a single person who isn’t and is given free rein is capable of creating a disaster.

That’s not to say, of course, that trust isn’t important. At a certain level, we have to trust people – human life would be impossible if we didn’t. In things like surveillance, that trust, however, needs to be earned. It needs to be demonstrated that people are worthy of what trust we give them – and right now, after the Snowden revelations, trust in the intelligence services is in a great deal of doubt. It needs to be rebuilt – and that means much more transparency is needed to start with, but also much more understanding. It needs to be made clear that those in authority understand why people are bothered by this. It means that they need take our worries and concerns seriously.

Right now, too, it means that they can’t expect us to take what they tell us on trust. It means there should be a little more humility, a little more of what might be called ‘grace’. The way that the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act (DRIP) was steamrollered through parliament this summer showed none of this. The reverse: it showed contempt for people, and a huge amount of disrespect. The whole process, rather than helping to rebuild the trust, to demonstrate the good faith, to show that they are honourable people, reduced that trust, demonstrated bad faith, and suggested that they are far from honourable. And that goes for the ‘honourable members’ of parliament and for the intelligence services who presumably suggested the bill. I say ‘presumably’, because we really don’t know, and never got the chance to find out. Sir Malcolm Rifkind admitted on Tuesday that he didn’t understand RIPA: how many of the MPs who passed DRIP understood what they were passing? My guess is that they ‘trusted’ the people telling them it was needed, and decided that was enough.

Well, for me it wasn’t. Not nearly enough. We need much more – and I’m waiting.

Knights of the ISC Round Table….

Yesterday I took part in the ’round table sessions’ of the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament’s ‘Privacy and Security Inquiry’. It was an interesting event – and an enjoyable one, though I hope that doesn’t mean that I’ve already begun the process of being ‘captured’ by the intelligence community. The round table sessions are part of the bigger inquiry – accompanied by public evidence sessions which are continuing through the week.

The whole thing was very informal – I found myself sitting next to Sir Malcolm Rifkind and opposite Lord Lothian around a small, round table, one of three such tables in the room. Yes, the round table sessions really involved round tables. Essentially, we had an hour to chat about whatever issues we felt mattered to the inquiry – we had been invited on the basis of the written evidence we had submitted to the inquiry, back in February this year (mine can be found here). Around the table were an academic computer scientist, what I would call a ‘real’ programmer, a human rights activist, myself, a former lawyer for MI5 and MI6, and the two members of the committee, Sir Malcolm Rifkind and Lord Lothian.

There were some very positive things about the discussion – both Rifkind and Lothian appeared to agree, after some resistance, on the first major point that we tried to argue (primarily myself and Izza Leghtas from Human Rights Watch): that the privacy invasion, and hence the first set of proper controls, need to be at the gathering stage, not the accessing stage for data. That, in practice, less data should be gathered and held, and for shorter periods. Moreover, that there should be judicial involvement at the gathering stage – indeed, David Bickford, former Legal Director for MI5 and MI6, thought judges should be involved far more in the whole process, from beginning to end, following the French model.

As part of that discussion, they really did appear to take on board that there are serious risks involved in just gathering and holding data – and seemed to be listening as we listed them!

Other points of agreement were that RIPA is, basically, an awful mess. Rifkind readily admitted that he really didn’t understand it. What that says for his (and the committee’s) ability to oversee the intelligence services is another matter. The feeling from all concerned was that whatever else happens, the law needs review and it needs to be clearer what it actually does – whether directly in the law or in accompanying guidance. It would be nice to see – but I am not holding my breath.

Three particularly interesting things that came out of our brief discussion – and it was brief, because the hour we had went very fast. The first was that Sir Malcolm Rifkind made a very clear differentiation between the intelligence services and the other groups who can use RIPA. He made the argument that the intelligence services really can’t do you any harm unless you’re one of the ‘bad guys’ – and though this was perilously close to saying ‘if you’ve got nothing to hide’ he did acknowledge that it was not an argument that worked in relation to the police, to local authorities or to the other various bodies that utilise surveillance or gathered data. He seemed to suggest that all of those bodies – including the police – need much tighter controls. In the light of the current issues regarding police access to journalists’ communications data, this makes sense, but again it will be interesting to see whether it really amounts to anything.

The second was that David Bickford made the specific comment that if corporations do all the data gathering, analysis and so forth, then surely the intelligence services should be able to do the same. Why should we place more restrictions on the intelligence services than we do on Google and Facebook? When I suggested that perhaps this means that we should put more restrictions on Google and Facebook rather than less on the intelligence services, he laughed a bit, but did seem to get the point.

The third was that both Lord Lothian and Sir Malcolm Rifkind noted that the Human Rights Act provided protection – and when I teased him about the planned impending doom of the Human Rights Act, Rifkind almost winced, and said that there’s always the ECHR. I got the distinct feeling that Rifkind is not enamoured of Grayling’s plan for human rights, though he was far too diplomatic to say so.

Much more was said, and overall it was a good and fairly robust discussion – we all seemed to be able to say what we wanted, and the two committee members seemed genuinely to be listening. They are, however, politicians – and they were also very aware of the limitations of their own powers, and how hard it is to change things in this field with any speed. They were keenest of all on increasing transparency, and moving to a position where the default position is that information is disclosed, and is made public, rather than the opposite. I hope this happens….

….but I remain cynical about it all. The question of whether what the committee does actually has any impact on what the security and intelligence services do remains unanswered. Is this all just a PR exercise, or is there some more profound change going on? It will take a lot more than a few round table sessions, even with Knights like Sir Malcolm Rifkind, to convince me. However, I found myself just a smidgen less cynical than I was before the session started. Perhaps I’ve been captured after all.