A Defence of Responsible Tweeting…

I presented a paper at the Society of Legal Scholars conference in Edinburgh with the title ‘Twitter Defamation: A Defence of Responsible Tweeting”. I’ve put a little movie version of the slides of my presentation at the bottom of this blog post.

The primary idea behind the paper was to develop a little further an idea that I had soon after the Sally Bercow/Lord McAlpine business, and which I blogged about for The Justice Gap at the time. At a detailed level, the question I am asking is whether there should be a specific form of defence against defamation available for tweeters – a ‘defence of responsible tweeting’ – when tweeters have behaved ‘responsibly’ in terms that make sense for twitter, rather than for conventional journalism. As Alex Andreou asked in the New Statesman at the time, ‘Can every Twitter user be expected to fact check Newsnight?’

I think not – and in my paper (see the slides below) I set out a broad-brush, first draft idea of the kind of level of fact checking and verification that I think would be reasonable and suit the nature of Twitter, as well as how this might fit with the law. As I said, this is very much a work in progress…

More research is needed, and some of the ideas are still rudimentary – but the more I have looked into the subject the clearer it has seemed to me that our defamation law, even after the reforms in the Defamation Act 2013, has not taken on board the changes that have come about as a result of the development of the social media, and of Twitter in particular. It is still law based in the ‘old’ world, designed to deal with conventional journalism – and the reforms have been designed to shift the balance more in favour of freedom of expression also in the old sense, to help conventional journalists. The defences provided also seem to suit conventional journalists rather than bloggers – and in particular Tweeters.

I hope this can change – and that a way can be found to help Tweeters more – because, as well as outlining a legal defence of ‘responsible tweeting’, in the end my paper is intended as a ‘real’ defence of responsible tweeting. For me, tweeting is important, and makes a valuable contribution to freedom of expression – it does things that conventional journalism in particular fails to do. It is a two way process – and though people often seem to forget it, freedom of expression, as set out in the various human rights documents (and in particular the European Convention on Human Rights, which celebrated 60 years of existence yesterday) includes the right to both impart and receive information. Twitter, and other forms of social media, allow that two-way process in a way that has never been possible before. It is also a process that is available to ordinary people, not just professional journalists – and freedom of expression is a human right, not a journalists’ right.

This is not just a theoretical right – Twitter has a practical and real impact on freedom of speech. It’s pretty much impossible to list all the ways in which Twitter enables freedom of speech, but one particular set of ways relate to its interaction with conventional media. It allows people to comment on things in the conventional media, to correct for errors, to criticise and highlight bias or prejudices, to add value by adding links to more information. It can take programmes or stories that have small audiences and disseminate them to much, much wider audiences. It can spread stories from one part of the world to another – so we can see make comparisons and see things in perspective. It provides a voice for people who aren’t professional journalists, politicians or celebrities – people who find it very hard to have a voice through the conventional media.

All of this matters – and all of this is worth defending. Of course there are some hideous problems with Twitter, and some thoroughly irresponsible uses, from the horrendous threats and abuse we’ve seen recently, to hate speech, to rumour-mongering and defamation – but we shouldn’t forget the great benefits and throw the baby out with the bathwater. Responsible tweeting matters.

These are the slides – I hope that there will be a proper written paper in the reasonably near future.

Leveson: Bloggers and the Royal Charter

One of the immediate reactions to the last minute deal over the implementation of the Leveson recommendations was that it would hit bloggers and tweeters very hard. I’m not sure that’s really true – and will set out here why. I should say these are just a few first thoughts – it will be quite some time before everything becomes clear, partly because the Royal Charter itself needs careful and detailed analysis and partly because it’s not just the Charter itself that matters, but the documents and guidelines that follow. The Royal Charter is only part of the story. It sets out terms for a ‘recognition panel’ that ‘recognises’ regulators – it doesn’t set up the regulators themselves. As Cameron and others have been at pains to point out, the idea is that the ‘press’ sets up the regulator(s) itself.  We have yet to see what form any regulator the press sets up will take. It has to be good enough for the recognition panel to accept – that’s the key…

So what about bloggers?

Attention has been focused on Schedule 4 of the Royal Charter (which can be found here), which sets out two definitions:

relevant publisher” means a person (other than a broadcaster) who publishes in the United Kingdom:

i. a newspaper or magazine containing news-related material, or

ii. a website containing news-related material (whether or not related to a newspaper or magazine);”

news-related material” means:

i. news or information about current affairs;

ii. opinion about matters relating to the news or current affairs; or

iii. gossip about celebrities, other public figures or other persons in the news.”

So, according to those definitions, many – perhaps most – bloggers would count as ‘relevant publishers’. Certainly I would say that my own blog – this one – would fit the definition. This seems to have caused many people to panic – but you need to look a little further: in particular, what does it mean to say that I’m a ‘relevant publisher’?

On a quick review of the Royal Charter, all it appears to mean at present is whether I would be eligible to part of the ‘recognition’ panel, or employed by that recognition panel – part of the rules intended to keep the recognition panel independent of the press, one of the key parts of the Leveson recommendations.

It may of course mean more than that in time – but we don’t know. We need to see more – the real details of how this will work have yet to emerge beyond the initial Royal Charter Draft. The fact that the definitions are there doesn’t mean much – though it could be a pointer as to the direction that the new regulatory regime is headed. It may indeed be that the new scheme is intended to ‘regulate the web’ but it doesn’t do so yet.

What’s the difference between a newspaper’s website and a blog?

That’s the big question that has yet to be answered. There’s a clear difference between the Guardian Online and my little blog – but where does things like Conservative Home, Liberal Conspiracy and Guido’s Order Order fit into the spectrum? There were even rumours last year that the Guardian was going to abandon its ‘real’ paper and focus only on its online version – they were quickly scotched, but they were believable enough for a lot of people to accept them. If they had happened, should the Guardian Online have been regulated as though it were a newspaper?

If the press is to be regulated at all – and the consensus between the political parties that lay behind yesterday’s deal suggests that non-regulation is not an option – then online newspapers that are effectively the same as ‘paper’ newspapers should have to be regulated too. Small blogs shouldn’t – and Cameron and others have been quick to say that social media won’t be covered, though quite how they bring that into action has yet to be seen. The difficulty lies in the greyer areas, and that’s where we have to be vigilant – the devil will be in the detail.

What about those huge fines?

The Charter actually says the body should have “…the power to impose appropriate and proportionate sanctions (including but not limited to financial sanctions up to 1% of turnover attributable to the publication concerned with a maximum of £1,000,000)…”

Appropriate and proportionate sanctions for a non-profit blogger would therefore be likely to be qualitative – remedies like proper and prominent apologies come to mind. The fining capability – the £1,000,000 that has made its way into press headlines – may mean something to big newspapers, but it’s effectively irrelevant to bloggers. We don’t have ‘turnovers’ of any significance – and big fines would (in general) be inappropriate and disproportionate.

The real key is the idea of ‘exemplary damages’, introduced by the Crime and Courts Bill. That, however, introduces a different definition of ‘relevant publisher’. It says:

“(1) In sections (Awards of exemplary damages) to (Awards of costs), “relevant publisher” means a person who, in the course of a business (whether or not carried on with a view to profit), publishes news-related material—

(a) which is written by different authors, and

(b) which is to any extent subject to editorial control.”

That means that individual bloggers are automatically exempt – but leaves the bigger bloggers like Conservative Home, Liberal Conspiracy and Guido’s Order Order subject to possible exemplary damages.

Personally I don’t think the risk is at all high – exemplary damages are highly unlikely to apply except in the most extreme of circumstances, but it is still something to be alert to.

…and anyway, blogs are already subject to the law

This is a key point that many seem to miss. This regulatory framework isn’t acting in a vacuum. Bloggers and tweeters are already subject to the law – to defamation law, to privacy law, to copyright law, to public order law, to laws concerning hate speech, to obscenity law. This framework would do nothing to change that. Those laws are complex and variably effective – and variably enforced.

Personally that’s what I’d be concerned about, much more than Leveson. The illiberality of the use of public order and related law on tweeters and bloggers is something that, for me, is far more dangerous a trend than anything this Royal Charter could bring about.

Keep vigilant

These are just some first thoughts – there’s a long way to go with this. Monday wasn’t the last word in this. Far from it – we need to watch very carefully and lobby very strongly if things seem to be moving the wrong way, but we shouldn’t be distracted and forced into a panic over anything at this stage.

Personally, I wonder whether those who are against the regulation for their own reasons are just trying to scare bloggers and tweeters, and enlist them on their side. Not me. Not yet.

Leveson: don’t believe the hype….

With Monday’s debate and vote looming, the hype over Leveson seems to be ratcheting up a few notches. Nick Cohen’s acerbic piece in the Observer, headlined ‘Leveson’s liberal friends bring shame upon the left’ is just one example. Given that those most closely involved in the debate on both sides are journalists, politicians and ‘media folk’ it should not come as a surprise that the contributions (again on both sides) are well-written, in prominent places in the media, and tending towards the hyperbolic.

If you believe Cohen and those on his side, the ‘pro-Leveson lobby’ are risking centuries of precious free speech just to make a political point, whilst if you believe Cathcart, Hugh Grant and the Hacked Off team, if we don’t implement Leveson we will be missing a historical opportunity to rein in the evils of the press barons and their abominable practices. Who’s right? The points made by both sides are well-put and seductive. Cohen’s right that we shouldn’t allow an opportunity to humiliate David Cameron and give the likes of Murdoch and Dacre a bloody nose to blind us to the risks to free speech of giving politicians control over the press. Hacked Off are quite right that what the press have done – and indeed continue to do – is often hideous and hugely reprehensible, and that just allowing it to go on without any action would be ridiculous. And yet I find it hard to get wholly enthused by either side of the debate.

Leveson wouldn’t be the end of free speech…

I don’t believe the ‘anti-Leveson’ argument for a number of reasons. First of all, because as I’ve argued before I don’t think the mainstream press that we have now bears much resemblance to a ‘free press’ – it’s just a question of who or what controls it, rather than whether it’s free. Secondly, I don’t think that what’s being proposed by either side will actually do much to fetter the press. It may control one or two excesses, but it won’t do anything that’s not already being done. We already have defamation and privacy law that impacts upon free speech, we already have huge editorial control that prevents some of the really important debates ever reaching the public eye – what’s proposed by Leveson won’t make as much difference as his opponents might think.

Leveson wouldn’t do much to control press excesses…

Similarly, I don’t believe the ‘pro-Leveson’ group either. Firstly, as noted above I suspect they’re deeply naïve if they believe that even the full implementation of Leveson would really do that much to curb the practices of the press – regulation rarely has the effects that people might desire, either way. What’s more, if they imagine that implementation of Leveson would turn the likes of the Sun, Mail and Express into responsible papers, they’re really living in cloud cuckoo-land. Regardless of Leveson, the Sun will still be full of rampant misogyny, the Mail full of vile anti-immigrant and anti-European rants and the Express will still billow out homophobia and Islamophobia. They’ll continue to demonise the disabled and those on benefits, twist the debate on Europe and shift the blame for all our problems onto the vulnerable and the innocent. They may not hack our phones, but they’ll still find a way to dig out secrets and private information – and ways that are technically legal, too. The data is out there – and they’ll find a way to dig it out and to use it in all kinds of horrible ways. If we think statutory press regulation will stop this, we’re deluding ourselves.

This debate is about politics…

The reality, it seems to me, is that this debate is primarily a political one – and almost nothing to do with free speech. It’s a chance for David Cameron to put clear blue water between himself and the Lib Dems – and a chance for Ed Miliband to give Cameron a good hiding. It’s Nick Clegg staking claim to a liberalism that his behaviour over the last two years in coalition have vigorously denied. It’s a chance for all three to position themselves in preparation for the long run-up to the 2015 election. Nothing to do with free speech at all. But then, to a great extent, free speech is moving on from the ‘press’…

Free speech matters…

All this is happening while the real ‘cutting edge’ of free speech is somewhere other than the papers – and is under threat in ways that Leveson doesn’t get close to. Free speech is in the hands of the bloggers and tweeters – and the question of how to ‘regulate’ them is still up in the air. Social media prosecutions are still happening – and though the DPP has issued new guidance that might liberalise it a bit, the proof will still be in the pudding. We don’t know what will happen – but none of the political parties has taken a good, free speech stance, obsessed as they are by Leveson.

Free speech is also in the hands of the protestors – and there are also few signs that any of the politicians are coming out properly in support of the rights of people to protest. Instead, there are prosecutions and crackdowns. If politicians of any side of the debate are really in favour of free speech, they’d be talking about this a lot more. Are they? Not really – and certainly not at anywhere near the level that they talk about Leveson.

For me, Leveson is to a great extent a distraction. However the vote goes on Monday, it won’t be disastrous for either side. There will be much more hype over the next few days – but we should take it all with a huge pinch of salt. We shouldn’t believe the hype – we should focus more on the real threats to free speech that are out there.

The proof of the pudding…

christmas pudding with custardThe news that Lord McAlpine has started legal proceedings against Sally Bercow for libel over her tweets has been greeted in some quarters by dismay. I don’t see it that way: from an academic perspective, and potentially for future tweeters in related circumstances, it could end up being good news. One of the difficulties at the moment is that we really don’t know exactly where we stand. A high profile High Court battle could help us find out – and a high profile battle it seems likely to be, with Bercow having engaged those renowned lawyers Carter-Ruck. In the law in England and Wales, it’s hard to know where you are without a proper court case: the proof of the legal pudding is very much in the eating.

What’s more, in this case, all possible outcomes have their upside. I’m not going to speculate as to how the case will go – though you might want to look at my guide to defamation on twitter, which is here. I look forward to following the case closely, if it does actually come to trial – and it is important to understand what the main possible outcomes are, and what impact each of them might have. There are three main possibilities:

  1. Lord McAlpine could lose;
  2. Lord McAlpine could win, but be awarded relatively small damages; or
  3. Lord McAlpine could win, and be awarded substantial damages.

If the first happens, and Lord McAlpine ends up with a legal bloody nose, many tweeters will breathe a huge sigh of relief. The chilling effect will be effectively melted, and twitter will feel a freer, more comfortable place.

If the second happens, though the result won’t be as ‘freeing’ for tweeters, it might well mean that potential claimants are less likely to pursue people for defamatory tweets. If the damages to be gained are lower, and the costs are still substantial, why bother? Just ask for an apology, or move on. Cases that are pursued would only occur in very serious circumstances, or where the defamation is very clear and very damaging – in which case it may well be entirely appropriate! Twitter does need to have some kind of responsibility…

If the third happens, the result may be pretty hideous for Bercow herself – but it is important to understand that damages in libel cases in England and Wales are no longer as high as at their peak in the 80s. The £50,000 that Lord McAlpine is reported to have asked from Bercow would be a hefty figure by recent standards, for example. Even so, from the perspective of the future, there is an upside to this – it would make it crystal clear that defamation law, insofar as it relates to the social media, is in dire need of reform.

I have argued elsewhere for this – and for the development of a ‘defence of responsible tweeting’ to provide clarity and reassurance for tweeters. This is a key moment – for the first time in many years, a new defamation bill is making its way through parliament. If we are going to change the law, this is the moment. A case like the Bercow/McAlpine case could provide the ammunition that is needed to convince parliament that a change is needed, a change that would support the developing social media community.

That’s why I am not dismayed at Lord McAlpine’s move – I can see a good way forward whichever result comes from the case. In a way, the worst thing would be if it didn’t make it to court. That is also still entirely possible. Some kind of settlement might happen, or McAlpine might even drop the case. That would leave us with more uncertainty – and uncertainty is rarely good in a legal context. I’d like to see something out in the open, something proved.

Witches and Unicorns

The_Baba_Yaga_by_SamoloPhilosopher Alasdair MacIntyre once suggested that belief in human rights was akin to belief in witches and unicorns – by which he meant that the whole concept was illusionary and fundamentally flawed. As he put it:

“There are no such rights, and belief in them is one with belief in witches and unicorns.”

Listening to a lot of the discussion of the Leveson report, and in particular the cries from some journalists and politicians about the spectre of statutory regulation and how we need to rally round and protect the ‘free press’, I was tempted to suggest something similar.

‘There is no such thing as a free press, and belief in it is one with belief in witches and unicorns.’

After all, our press – and indeed the press in any other nation – cannot in any real sense be described as ‘free’. It is subject to the law of the land – and even in the US, the land of the First Amendment, that means that ‘free speech’ is not absolute. In the classical example, one cannot falsely shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre – but there are other restrictions too. Defamation law exists – even in the US, though it is less powerful, perhaps, than elsewhere. In the US the copyright lobby has a great deal of power – and wields it on videos on YouTube, for example, with ominous regularity to take down videos and music that is suspected of breaching copyright. There is other law that applies too – in the UK, for example, laws protecting the misuse of private information, against malicious communications, against speech that might incite racial or religious hatred and so forth. Plenty of law – and the UK still views itself as relatively liberal in terms of the way the law applies to the press.

That’s just the law – the press is subject to many other pressures that keep it far from free, from the power of the media magnates who own the major papers and TV stations, from the political pressure of the powerful. The so-called ‘Press Barons’ have a huge amount of control over not only their own papers but those of others – to call this ‘freedom’ in any real sense is very misleading indeed. This lack of freedom has its consequences – an apparently comfortable consensus about what should and shouldn’t be published, and a great deal of difficulty for those ‘small’ and ‘difficult’ voices that don’t fit the agenda of the press to get published. What we have in the UK doesn’t fit the image that I have in my head of what a truly ‘free’ press should be. It’s not a unicorn – it’s a rather scruffy looking donkey, past its prime and looking as though it’s just come through a gorse bush backwards.

Witches and Unicorns

lady-and-unicornAnd yet, when I go back to Alasdair MacIntyre’s quote, I remember my original reaction to it: he might well be right, but does that really matter? Is it the ‘existence’ in a fundamental, philosophical sense that matters about human rights – or indeed about the free press? Human rights may not really exist in that way – they may just be a helpful illusion, an aspiration, something that we can believe in, can rally round, and can use to bring about better things in the world. That’s one of the ways that I often look at them – I’m no rights ‘fundamentalist’, but I recognise the power of the language, and the force that it can be for good. I recognise that we may not be able to ever actually achieve anything that we set out in the great human rights documents – from the Universal Declaration of Human Right onwards – but that in fighting for them, in aspiring to them, we can help people to live better, freer, more dignified lives.

The same seems to me to be true about the idea of a ‘free press’. It doesn’t really exist. It may never exist – but we can aspire to it, and make our voices heard more freely and more clearly through that aspiration. We shouldn’t, however, rely on the illusion, and protect the illusion as though it were the real thing. The press, as it currently exists in the UK, is, as I have suggested, very far from the unicorn of my dreams – so let’s be willing to burst that illusion, and to create something newer, more like the ‘real’ unicorn. Let’s be willing to look at a new model of regulation – using a statutory basis, if need be – and understand that we’re not destroying a unicorn, just cleaning up an old donkey.

Our new unicorn, to me, could come from a very different source. Right now, what we have in the social media, in bloggers and tweeters, seems to me to be closer…. and has more chance of gaining the glossy silver coat, the sharp, pearly horn, the magical sheen of the unicorn of freedom that we’re looking for. Let’s protect that – by looking for defamation reform to protect tweeters and bloggers, for reform of public order and communications law, to block such oppressive legislation as the Snooperscharter, and to educate the courts as to how the social media really works. That’s the way to get a real free press….

Chilling out…

There’s been a lot of talk of the ‘chilling effect’ recently. The Leveson report, due out this week, is going to have a chilling effect, we’re told. Lord McAlpine’s threatened defamation suits on tweeters are having a chilling effect too – I was even quoted as saying so myself. So what is this chilling effect anyway? Even mention the words and it sends shivers down the spines of free speech advocates. You’re faced by icy glares – and can find yourself frozen out of discussions. Suggest that there might be some speech that would be better off ‘chilled’ and it doesn’t exactly make people warm to you.

None of us want twitter to turn tepid – if all we get is lukewarm discussions of celebrities and cold-hearted press releases from politicians then what’s the point? And yet sometimes, just sometimes, things can get too hot to handle on twitter. Arguments reach boiling point more often than they should, tempers flare and we all turn into hotheads and firebrands. Does it help? There are times when it does – when we need fire in our hearts and the heat of passion – and I for one would never want to lose that. There are other times, however, when it goes over the top, when the ‘freedom’ of twitter brings out the torches and pitchforks, and we seem to turn into a fiery mob. What is needed is a cool head. Now, for me, is one of those times. If we can stay cool, calm and collected, we can turn this possible chill into something that helps us – but we do need to stay cool.

If we can do that – if we can meet these challenges without overheating – there’s an opportunity here, not just a threat. Just as the Twitter Joke Trial eventually produced the right outcome – after a long and painful fight, for sure – we might be able to produce a good outcome here. If any of these twitter libel cases reach court we might get a better result than we realise. And if we don’t, as I suggested in my blog for the Justice Gap, we have a rare opportunity to change the law – the defamation bill is going through Parliament right now. Cool heads – not hot heads – could help drive though the changes needed to produce an atmosphere that protects what we love about twitter. What we need from twitter. So let’s cool down a little. Chill… but in the right way. Fix our icy glares on those who want to use this hot atmosphere to produce the kind of chill we don’t want, and say no. Keep cool – but don’t lose the passion in our hearts.

Defamation on Twitter…

In the light of all the current interest, I’ve put together a little basic guide to defamation on twitter. This isn’t anything like ‘legal advice’, and please remember I’m an academic, not a practicing lawyer… but this should give you some idea of what defamation means, and how it might apply on twitter! Remember too, that this is based on the law as it exists in England and Wales.

What is a defamatory statement?

The basic principle is that a statement is defamatory if it substantially affects, in an adverse manner, the attitude of other people to the complainant or has it has a tendency to do so. This definition is very broad ranging so many ‘nasty’ statements about another person come into the range of potentially defamatory statements. Note there is no need to show that the statement does actually affect what other people think of the complainant: it is enough that the words have a tendency to do that.

Can anyone be defamed, or only famous people?

Everyone has a reputation – and anyone can be defamed!

If the statement is true, is it OK?

Many true statements about a person are defamatory. So to say of a convicted murderer that he is a murderer is defamatory but true. If you, and you have the burden of proving this, can prove what you said was true then you MAY have a defence available of ‘justification’. Can you prove it? See defences below!

Do you need to name the person for it to be defamation?

To be able to bring a claim a person must be able to prove that what was said pointed to them. Normally this will require that they be named but that it is not always necessary All that’s needed is for it to be possible for a ‘reasonable reader’, to be able to come to the conclusion that the statement referred to the person. If they can ‘join the dots’, then even without the name, the statement could be defamatory.

Are you OK if you put ‘allegedly’ before your statement?

No. This is an urban myth. It doesn’t help at all. Similarly, saying ‘I’ve been told that…’ or words to that effect don’t help.

Is it OK if it’s just a joke?

Not necessarily. Some ‘jokes’ have been decided to be capable of being defamatory. The question in every case is whether the words read in context adversely affect a person’s reputation, or have the tendency to do so. ‘Jokes’ can have this effect.

What kind of defences can you have?

The main defences for the kinds of statements made on twitter are likely to be:

  • Justification – that the words are ‘true in substance and in fact’. This essentially means that you’ve told the truth, and in such a way that doesn’t imply something untrue either, e.g. by using only part of the truth, by quoting out of context etc. Note that you have the burden of proving that the words are true.
  • Honest comment – if you’re offering an opinion (and not stating a fact) on a matter of public interest, and your opinion is based on true facts, then you may be able to rely on the defence of honest comment. Putting ‘in my opinion’ at the beginning of the sentence does not automatically mean the statement will be treated as such. The question the courts ask is would a reasonable reader regard the statement as one of fact or comment. So ‘in my opinion, X is a paedophile’ would be likely to be treated as a statement of fact, while ‘X is a loser’ would in all likelihood be treated as comment. The line between the two is however very imprecise. Even if all the above elements are shown to exist by the defendant, the defence will be defeated if it was made out of malice.
  • The Reynolds defence – this is a defence originally developed to protect journalists, who do their investigation and write their story with appropriate diligence. If they do that, and the story is about a matter of public interest, then even if they get their facts wrong, they may be protected. This is complex – and for most non-journalist tweeters is unlikely to apply.

Can a tweet be defamatory?

Yes – tweets can be defamatory, and are not out of the reach of the law. Tweeps have had to pay very high damages to those that they have defamed even where the offending tweet has not been read by many people.

Can a re-tweet be defamatory?

Yes – in law, every ‘republication’ potentially creates a fresh claim. The idea that putting in your bio ‘RT doesn’t mean endorsement’ will probably not provide you with protection though the question has not been tested in the courts.

Am I safe if I ‘protect’ my tweets?

Not necessarily – you can defame someone even if you only send the information to a small number of people. It depends on who those people are, rather than how many there are of them. However, if only a very small number of people ever see your defamatory, the court may strike out any claim for defamation – it has happened!

Can twitter accounts be linked to individuals?

Yes. You may think you’re anonymous, but more often than you realise, you can be found – both technically and legally. Locating people via IP addresses etc is possible, and though the use of a legal mechanism called a ‘Norwich Pharmacal Order’ an information service provider such as Twitter can be ordered to provide what details it has about you.

When you look at all of this together, it means that people need to be careful what they tweet! I would have hoped that the last couple of weeks had made that quite clear! My thanks to Professor Alastair Mullis in the preparation of this blog post.

Topical subjects….

I was struck by something yesterday: the things that I research and teach about seem to be becoming more and more topical. What drove it home was the Philip Schofield/David Cameron incident on ITV’s This Morning – happening in a week where on Monday and Tuesday I was lecturing about defamation defences and defamation reform, and on the very day of the incident was running a seminar on privacy and defamation in the press.

It was a bit strange – and I hope the students appreciated the strangeness – to be able to talk about an incident as it actually unfolded. We looked at the clip on the internet as it happened, and discussed all the potential issues – because there are big potential implications in terms of both privacy and defamation from the event. I’m not going to write much more about it here – I want to see how events unfold – save to say that for me it’s really important to understand that even people that we intensely dislike or disapprove of have rights, and need to have those rights respected. That means people accused of or suspected of paedophilia – even more than most, because if they’re innocent the false accusation is one of the most hideously damaging you can have, and the torches and pitchforks seem to be out on twitter and elsewhere at the drop of a hat in the current climate. It also means David Cameron – as anyone who knows me will realise, I’m a strong opponent of Cameron and his government, but that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have rights. Neither does it mean that he should be ambushed in the way that he was (though as others have pointed out he did choose the ‘safe’ sofa of This Morning over the tough chair of Newsnight, so to an extent is his own worst enemy). It also means, in my opinion, that we should give him the benefit of at least some doubt – personally I don’t think he was deliberately trying to suggest that there’s some sort of link between paedophilia and homosexuality, but that others might try to make such a link, and to warn against it. Anyone who ever reads the Daily Mail would know that this is entirely likely!

I shall be watching as events unfold with a lot of interest – and some trepidation, because there are distinct possibilities this could get very messy indeed. Time will tell. It’s not, however, the only thing that has made me feel that my subjects are becoming more and more topical. For some reason, this last week seems to have been one where my ‘stuff’ has come out. Four new things by or about me have appeared on the net:

First, my blog post for the UK Constitutional Law Group, about online anonymity rights – a very British dilemma: found here

I particularly liked doing this post because it allowed me to explore an aspect of privacy and anonymity that I don’t often look at – the fact that it’s part of our tradition in the UK, not just something new and trendy. We’ve always wanted privacy – and I suspect we always will.

Second, my post for Russell Webster’s ‘Why I Tweet’ series: found here

One of the things I really enjoy on twitter is that there’s a great community of people of all kinds – and in particular there’s a strong ‘privacy community’ of people from all over the world who have interesting things to say, interesting links and so on.

Third, the first clips from my interviews for Orwell Upgraded series – me talking about Big Data. found here

I’m looking forward to the final edited version of the programmes – though I’m not at all sure that I can deal with the extremely high quality of the video… far too accurate a close up of my face!

Fourth, a Q&A I did on ‘Do Not Track’ for PcPro.com – another key, current internet privacy debate: found here

All in all I’ve felt like I was part of something that is topical – and important at the same time. It’s a good feeling, but a daunting one. People do seem to be interested in the subject, which is great: even just a few years ago most of what I talked about and researched into seemed to be very much a niche subject. Privacy – and most of my stuff is privacy related in some form or other – is becoming bigger and bigger news, and more people are understanding its importance. On Monday, I’m on a panel at the Internet Service Providers Association conference, talking about the Communications Data Bill – the snoopers’ charter – another big privacy issue, and one that I’ve talked and written a lot about before. The fact that the internet industry (and that’s what the ISPA represents) is making a privacy-related subject one of the key points of their annual conference is very important. Despite many signs in the other direction – not least the willingness of people like Philip Schofield to put people’s privacy at risk just because of rumours on the internet – I think the trend towards privacy may be a positive one. I hope so!

Will the government ‘get’ digital policy?

I had an interesting time at the ‘Seventh Annual Parliament and Internet Conference’ yesterday – and came away slightly less depressed than I expected to be. It seemed to me that there were chinks of light emerging amidst the usually stygian darkness that is UK government digital policy and practice – and signs that at least some of the parliamentarians are starting to ‘get it’. There were also some excellent people there from other areas – from industry, from civil society, from academia – and I learned as much from private conversations as I did in the main sessions.

The highlight of the conference, without a doubt, was Andy Smith, the PSTSA Security Manager at the Cabinet Office, recommending to everyone that they should use fake names on the internet everywhere except when dealing with the government – the faces of the delegation from Facebook, whose ‘real names’ policy I’ve blogged about before were a sight to behold. Andy Smith’s suggestion was noted and reported on by Brian Wheeler of the BBC within minutes, and made Slashdot shortly after.

It was a moment of high comedy – Facebook’s Simon Milner, on a panel in the afternoon, said he had had a ‘chat’ with Andy Smith afterwards, a chat which I think a lot of us would have liked to listen in on. The comedic side, though, reveals exactly why this is such a thorny issue. Smith, to a great extent, is right that we should be deeply concerned by the extent to which our real information is being gathered, held and used by commercial providers for their own purposes – but he’s quite wrong that we should be able and willing to trust the government to hold our data any more securely or use it any more responsibly. The data disasters when HMRC lost the Child Benefit details of 25 million families or the numerous times the MoD has lost unencrypted laptops with all the details of both serving and retired members of the armed forces – and potential recruits – are not exceptions but symptoms of a much deeper problem. Trusting the government to look after our data is almost as dangerous as trusting the likes of Facebook and Google.

The worst aspect of the conference for me was that there seemed to still be a large number of people who believed that ‘complete’ security was not just possible but practical and just a few tweaks away. It’s a dangerous delusion – and means that bad decisions are being made, and likely to continue. A few other key points of the conference:

  • Chloe Smith, giving the morning keynote, demonstrated that she’d learned a little from her Newsnight mauling – she was better at evading questions, even if she was no better at actually answering them.
  • In Chi Onwurah, Labour have a real star – I hope she gets a key position in a future Labour government (should one come to pass)
  • We’ve got a long way to go with the Defamation Bill – without seeing the regulations that will accompany the bill, which apparently haven’t even been drafted yet, it’s all but impossible to know whether it will have any real effect (at least insofar as the internet is concerned)
  • In a private conversation, someone who really would know told me that one of the problems with sorting out the Defamation Bill has been an apparent obsession that Westminster insiders have with the ‘threat’ from anonymous bloggers – I suspect Guido Fawkes would be delighted by the amount of fear and loathing he seems to have generated in MPs, and how much it seems to have distracted them from doing what they should on defamation and libel reform.
  • After a few conversations, I’m quietly optimistic that we’ll be able to defeat the Communications Data Bill – it wasn’t on the agenda at the conference, but it was on many people’s minds and the whispers were generally more positive than I had feared they might be. Time will tell, of course.
  • Ed Vaizey is funny and interesting – but potentially deeply dangerous. His enthusiasm for the ‘iron fist’ side of copyright enforcement built into the Digital Economy Act was palpable and depressing. The way he spoke, it seemed as though the copyright lobby have him in the palm of their hand – and that neither they nor he have learned anything about the failure of the whole approach.
  • Vaizey’s words on porn-blocking – he seemed to suggest that we’ll go for an ‘opt-out’ blocking systems, where child-free households would effectively have to ‘register’ for access to porn, something which has HUGE risks (see my blog here) – were worrying, but again, another insider assured me that this wasn’t what he meant to say, nor the proposal currently on the table. This will need very careful watching!!
  • The savaging of Vaizey by a questioner from the floor revealing how much better and cheaper broadband internet access was in Bucharest than in Westminster was enjoyed by most – but not Vaizey, nor the industry representatives who remained conspicuously quiet.
  • Julian Huppert – my MP, amongst other things – was again impressive, and seems to have understood the importance of privacy in all areas: the fact that Nick Pickles of Big Brother Watch was invited to the panel on the internet of things that Huppert chaired made that point.
  • On that subject – mentions of either privacy or free speech were conspicuous by their absence in the early sessions on cybersecurity, but they grew both in presence and importance during the day. I asked a couple of questions, and they were both taken seriously and answered reasonably well. There’s a huge way to go, of course, but I did feel that the issue is taken a touch more seriously than it used to be. Mind you, none of the government representatives mentioned either in their speeches at all – it was all ‘economy’ and ‘security’, without much space for human rights….
  • The revelation from the excellent Tom Scott that though the rest of us are blocked from accessing the Pirate Bay, it IS accessible from Parliament was particularly good – and when my neighbour accessed the site and saw the picture of Richard O’Dwyer on the front page, it was poignant…

I came away from the conference with distinctly mixed feelings – there are some very good signs and some very bad ones. The biggest problem is that the really good people are still not in the positions of power, or seemingly being listened to – and those at the top don’t seem to be changing as fast as the rest. If we could replace Ed Vaizey with Julian Huppert and Chloe Smith with Chi Onwurah, government digital policy would be vastly improved….

A progressive digital policy?

Yesterday I read a call for submissions to Labour Left’s ‘Red Book II’, by Dr Éoin Clarke – to develop a way forward for the Labour Party. It started me thinking about what would really constitute a progressive digital policy – because for me, any progressive party should be looking at how to deal with the digital world. It is becoming increasingly important – and policies of governments seem to be wholly unable to deal with or even understand the digital world.

It must be said from the outset that I am not a Labour Party member, but that I was for many years. I left in 1999, partly because I was leaving the country and partly because I was already becoming disillusioned as to the direction that Labour was taking – a stance that the invasion of Iraq only confirmed. I have not rejoined the party since, though I have been tempted at times. One of the reasons I have not been able to bring myself to join has been the incoherence and oppressiveness of Labour’s digital policies, which are not those of a progressive, positive and modern party, of one that represents the ordinary people, and in particular the young people, of Britain today.

That seems to me to be very wrong. Labour should be a progressive party. It should be one that both represents and learns from young people. It should be one that looks forward rather than back – and one that is brave enough to be radical. Right now it isn’t: and the last government presided over some appalling, oppressive and regressive digital policies.

I’ve written in the past about why governments always get digital policy wrong – but it’s much easier to snipe from the sidelines than it is to try to build real policy. Here, therefore, is my first attempt at putting together a coherent, progressive policy for digital government. It is of course very much a skeleton – just the barest of bones – and very much a first attempt. There is probably a lot missing, and it needs a lot more thought. It would take a lot of work to put flesh on the bones – but for me, the debate needs to be had.

The starting point for such a policy would be a series of nine commitments.

  1. A commitment to the right to access to the net – and to supporting human rights online as well as in the real world. This is the easiest part of the policy, and one where Labour, at least theoretically, has not been bad. Gordon Brown spoke of such a right. However, supporting such a right has implications, implications which the Labour Party seems to have neither understood nor follows. The most important such implication is that it should not be possible to arbitrarily prevent people accessing the net – and that the barrier for removal of that right should be very high. Any policy which relies on the idea of blocking access should be vigorously resisted – the Digital Economy Act is the most obvious example. Cutting people’s access on what is essentially suspicion is wholly inconsistent with a commitment to the right to access the internet.
  2. A commitment against internet surveillance - internet surveillance is very much in the news right now, with the Coalition pushing the Communications Data Bill, accurately labelled the ‘snoopers’ charter’, about which I have written a number of times.Labour should very much oppose this kind of surveillance, but doesn’t. Indeed, rather the opposite – the current bill is in many ways a successor to Labour’s ‘Interception Modernisation Programme’. Surveillance of this kind goes very much against what should be Labour values: it can be and has been used to monitor those organising protests and similar, going directly against the kinds of civil rights that should be central to the programme of any progressive, left wing party: the rights to assembly and association. Labour should not only say, right now, that it opposes the Snoopers Charter, but that it would not seek to bring in other similar regulation. Indeed, it should go further, and suggest that it would work within the European Union to repeal the Data Retention Directive (which was pushed through by Tony Blair) and to reform RIPA – restricting the powers that it grants rather than increasing them.
  3. A commitment to privacy and data protection – rather than just paying lip service to them. I have written many times before about the problems with the Information Commissioner’s Office. First of all it needs focus: it (or any replacement body) should be primarily in charge of protecting privacy. Secondly, it needs more real teeth – but also more willingness to use them and against more appropriate targets. There has been far too little enforcement on corporate bodies, and too much on public authorities. If companies are to treat individuals’ private information better, they need the incentive to do so – at the moment even if they are detected, the enforcement tends to be feeble: a slap on the wrist at best. The current law punishes each group inappropriately: public authorities with big fines, which ultimately punish the public, corporates barely at all. Financial penalties would provide an incentive for businesses, while more direct personal punishments for those in charge of public authorities would work better as an incentive for them, as well as not punishing the public!
  4. A commitment to oppose the excessive enforcement of copyright – and instead to encourage the content industry to work for more positive ways forward. This would include the repeal of the Digital Economy Act, one of the worst pieces of legislation in the digital field, and one about which the Labour Party should be thoroughly ashamed. Labour needs to think more radically and positively – and understand that the old ways don’t work, and merely manage to alienate (and even criminalise) a generation of young people. Labour has a real opportunity to do something very important here – and to understand the tide that is sweeping across the world, at least in the minds of the people. In the US, SOPA and PIPA have been roundly beaten. ACTA suffered a humiliating defeat in the European Parliament and is probably effectively dead. In France, the new government is looking to abolish HADOPI – the body that enforces their equivalent of the Digital Economy Act. A truly progressive, radical party would not resist this movement – it would seek to lead it. Let the creative minds of the creative industries be put to finding a creative, constructive and positive way forward. Carrots rather than just big sticks.
  5. A commitment to free speech on the internet. This has a number of strands. First of all, to develop positive and modern rules governing defamation on the internet. Reform of defamation is a big programme – and I am not convinced that the current reform package does what it really should, focussing too much on reforming what happens in the ‘old media’ (where I suspect there is less wrong than some might suggest) without dealing properly with the ‘new media’ (which has been dealt with fairly crudely in the current reforms). There needs to be clarity about protection for intermediaries, for example.
  6. A commitment against censorship – this is the second part of the free speech strand. In the current climate, there are regular calls to deal with such things as pornography and ‘trolling’ on the internet – but most of what is actually suggested amounts to little more than censorship. We need to be very careful about this indeed – the risks of censorship are highly significant. Rather than strengthening our powers to censor and control,via web-blocking and so forth, we need to make them more transparent and accountable. A key starting point would be the reform of the Internet Watch Foundation, which plays a key role in dealing with child abuse images and related websites, but falls down badly in terms of transparency and accountability. It needs much more transparency about how it works – a proper appeals procedure, better governance structures and so forth. The Labour Party must not be seduced by the populism of anti-pornography campaigners into believing in web-blocking as a simple, positive tool. There are huge downsides to that kind of approach, downsides that often greatly outweigh the benefits.
  7. A radical new approach to social media – the third strand of the free speech agenda. We need to rethink the laws and their enforcement that have led to tragic absurdities like the Twitter Joke Trial, and the imprisonment of people for Facebook posts about rioting. The use of social media is now a fundamental part of many people’s lives – pretty much all young people’s lives – and at present it often looks as though politicians and the courts have barely a clue how it works. Labour should be taking the lead on this – and it isn’t. The touch needs to be lighter, more intelligent and more sensitive – and led by people who understand and use social media. There are plenty of them about – why aren’t they listened to?
  8. A commitment to transparency – including a full commitment to eGovernment, continuing the good aspects of what the current government is doing in relation to Open Data. Transparency, however, should mean much more – starting with full and unequivocal support for Freedom of Information. There has been too much said over recent months to denigrate the idea of freedom of information, and to suggest that it has ‘gone too far’. The opposite is much more likely to be the case: and a new approach needs to be formulated. If it takes too much time, money and effort to comply with FOI requests, that indicates that the information hasn’t been properly organised or classified, not that the requests should be curbed. The positive, progressive approach would be to start to build systems that make it easier to provide the information, not complain about the requests.
  9. A commitment to talk to the experts – and a willingness to really engage with and listen to them. We have some of the best – from people like Tim Berner-Lee to Professor Ross Anderson at the Cambridge University Computer Lab, Andrew Murray at the LSE, the Oxford Internet Institute and various other university departments, civil society groups and so forth – and yet the government consistently fails to listen to what they say, and prefers instead to listen to industry lobby groups and Whitehall insiders. That is foolish, short-sighted and inappropriate – as well as being supremely ineffective. It is one of the reasons that policies formulated are not just misguided in their aims but also generally fail to achieve those aims. There is real expertise out there – it should be used!

Much more is needed of course – this just sets out a direction. I’ve probably missed out some crucial aspects. Some of this may seem more about reversing and cancelling existing policies rather than formulating new ones – but that is both natural and appropriate, as the internet, much more than most fields, it generally needs a light touch. The internet is not ‘ungovernable’, but most attempts to govern it have been clumsy and counter-productive.

A forward-looking, radical and positive digital policy would mark the Labour Party out as no longer being in the hands of the lobbyists, but instead being willing to fight for the rights of real, ordinary people. It would mark out the Labour Party as being a party that understands young people better – and supports them rather than demonises and criminalises them. Of course I do not expect the Labour Party to take this kind of agenda on. It would take a level of political courage that has not been demonstrated often by any political party, let alone the current Labour Party, to admit that they have got things so wrong in the past. Admission of past faults is something that seems close to political blasphemy these days – for me, that is one of the biggest problems in politics.

As I said at the start, this is very much a first stab at an approach for the future – I would welcome comments, thoughts and even criticism(!). We need debate on this – and not just for the Labour Party. Currently, though my history has been with the Labour Party, I find myself without anyone that I think can represent me. If any party were to take on an agenda for the digital world that would make more sense, I would be ready to listen.