Unleash the doubts of war….

Parliament is to be recalled on Friday, to discuss UK involvement in air strikes against the so-called ‘Islamic State’ (neither really Islamic nor a state – in the same way that in the past the ‘Holy Roman Empire’ was not ‘holy’ nor ‘Roman’ nor an empire). Unlike the last time parliament voted on military action in Syria (that time against the regime of Assad – who would almost certainly be amongst the beneficiaries of the military action that is now being proposed), it seems pretty certain that both houses of parliament will approve this action. The ‘Islamic State’ (‘IS’) has performed so many atrocities – some of them on British citizens, some televised – that it is hard to see how military action can be resisted. And yet I do still have doubts. Big doubts.

I always doubt war. I’d like to think that we all do. The idea of using military force should be a last resort. People die – and that’s something that we need to take seriously. It’s not a game – though often it seems to be viewed in that way. People have played war games from the days of pushing toy solders about on a big map to playing Call of Duty on their X-Box – but real war isn’t like that. I haven’t experienced war myself, but I’ve spent a lot of time with people who have – from old relatives of mine who fought in the Spanish Civil War to working with kids who lived through the war in former Yugoslavia. War is a hideous, horrible, messy business. The sanitised language used these days – ‘surgical strikes’ is the one that gets me the most – can make it seem as though it’s easy, precise, and controllable. It isn’t. Precisely the opposite.

Learning from history

In this case, there seem to be very particular reasons to have doubts. Our recent experiences should make those doubts inevitable: the invasion of Iraq should be fresh in all our minds. Forgetting for a moment the farce of the WMDs, we went into Iraq to try to remove someone we believed was doing hideous things to his own people – and though we did remove him, we did it in a way that left hundreds of thousands dead, and resulted in a state in chaos. It is hard not to conclude (unless you’re Tony Blair) that it also played a very significant part in setting in place the conditions that brought about the emergence of IS. Our intervention cannot, except in the eyes of the blindest of optimists, be seen as having been a success. We created chaos, fostered resentment, and killed countless numbers of people. Can we be sure that what we are contemplating now won’t have similar results? IS emerged from the ashes of our earlier work: what will emerge from the ashes of this plan? It may be hard to imagine, but something still worse is possible.

Have we learned the lessons of last time? Or even from last year – when we were looking at action on the opposite side of the same conflict, so far as Syria is concerned? Listening to people like Tony Blair and his advisors, like Jack Straw – or, on the other side, the likes of Liam Fox – it seems as though we’ve learned almost nothing. It’s a bit like watching a bee buzzing against a window, again and again and again. This time it’ll be OK. No, this time. This time!!

Who wants this war?

We really should be asking this question. There are many answers – and they should at least make us pause for thought. One group who seem to be pretty keen on the war are IS themselves. They’ve been goading the West again and again. Challenging us to take action. Now it’s possible that they’re doing so expecting us to refuse, so they can portray us as cowards – but is that really likely given the past record? It seems far more likely that they want us to attack. They want us to demonstrate that we are as they suggest we are – we’re the Great Satan, out to destroy Islam. The more we attack, the more their case is proven – and the more they can recruit people to join them. Yes, their fighters will die, but they’ll die for the cause, and the cause itself will grow.

There are also people here in the West who clearly want this war – and for many of them the reasons should raise even more doubts. Tony Blair himself is one – whether to try to vindicate his original decision to join George W Bush in invading Iraq in the first place, or because he genuinely believes that this is the only way, he’s scarcely the person that we should be listening to in making a decision about military action. Liam Fox is another – a man with very close connections to the arms industry. Indeed, there are many amongst those calling for war who are likely to end up making money out of it, just as so much was made in both the war and the ‘reconstruction’ efforts in Iraq after the invasion back in 2003.

There are others who want the war for much more genuine reasons – from the Kurds themselves to others with close connection to the situation on the ground. They should be listened to – but so should those who doubt.

‘They threaten our way of life’

The portrayal of IS as the worst demons imaginable is a convincing one. Some of the stories coming out of Iraq and Syria are truly harrowing, and there’s little doubt that they commit atrocities on a nightmarish scale – but we should be careful about claims made about them even so. The idea that a group, or an ideology is ‘threatening our way of life’ is one that has been used before. Saddam Hussein was compared to Hitler. Al Qaeda portrayed as even worse. Assad, just a year ago, was described in similar ways. Going further back, the menace of Communism was seen the same way – and used as a justification for war all over the world. That’s not to say that any of these things are not true: in many ways they are. That, however, is not necessarily a justification for war – particularly if the war may not really have the effect of destroying them. The idea of a hydra, where if one head is chopped off two more grow in its place is one that should be familiar to all. Attacking IS may end up quite similar.

‘But what do you suggest?’

This is a question that I’ve been asked pretty much every time I’ve expressed doubts about military action against IS – and I don’t really have an answer except to say that right now, what is being suggested seems likely to me to do more harm than good. If that’s the case, then, painful as it may seem, right now the best thing to do might be nothing at all. To think. To try to find other ways. Arming the Kurds, for example, might be a far better way forward than air strikes or other direct military involvement. But, and I think this is crucial, not having an active alternative to suggest should not mean that we can’t express doubts about what is being proposed. Given the leaders that we have, we cannot – we must not – give them free rein to do whatever they want. We can’t trust them to run our own country – why could or should we trust them to wage war, to risk other people’s lives?

Being serious about peace and human rights

Even if this time war is appropriate – and I’m far from sure that it isn’t – what bothers me the most is that we don’t seem to be serious about peace, or all the things that are connected with peace. We have a government that is seriously considering withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights, and that seems to have little concern for or respect for the rule of law – Chris Grayling’s recent court defeat over legal aid ‘reform’ is just one example. We continue to supply arms, surveillance equipment and so forth to oppressive regimes all around the world – including regimes that behead people, oppress women and religious minorities and many of precisely those things that we see as being so evil in IS. Our governments overlook and even support the actions of the Israeli government in Gaza. While we do all these things, it’s very hard for us to be seen as anything but hypocritical in our actions – and it’s easy for people like IS to portray us as the enemies of the good. The starting point for creating peace and fostering human rights around the world is to support it at home. Yes, I know I’m being idealistic, unrealistic and living in Cloud-cuckoo-land to ask this, but sometimes it’s good to be idealistic.

There’s nothing wrong with doubt.

…and sometimes it’s good to have doubt. Sometimes it’s right to have doubt. I want to be quite clear about this – I may well be entirely wrong about this action. It may be that this is the time that military action is needed. I’m not a pacifist: my family fought against the Nazis, and in the Spanish Civil War. Sometimes military action, sometimes war, is needed. And, what’s more, delaying action can be critical. Leaving off action could have disastrous consequences. I know that. And what’s more, I know that my doubts will almost certainly not be listened to. That doesn’t stop me having them. I hope more people do have them – because what we should really worry about is people who are certain. That kind of certainty makes me shudder.

Long spoons…

long spoon verticalOne of my favourite sayings is  ‘who sups with the devil needs a long spoon.’ I love the imagery – and the meaning too. It seems as though we often need to sup with one devil or another – and we need to be constantly on our guard, and to make sure our spoons are long enough or we’ll find ourselves sucked into the devil’s grasp.

The times when the saying is relevant to politics seem almost endless – the poor old Lib Dems didn’t have nearly a long enough spoon when they went into coalition with the Tories, and they’ve been sucked almost dry. It’s not likely there will be much of them left after the 2015 election – and even what is left will be horribly damaged. They’re probably the best example of all – and show all the different stages of the ‘long spoon question’.

There are three parts to it. Firstly you need to recognise the devil when you see him. Secondly, once you’ve recognised him, you have to decide whether you really need to sup with him. Thirdly, if you do need to sup with him, you need to equip yourself with a long enough spoon. With the Lib Dems, I think they failed on all three, at least to a degree. David Cameron’s smarmy smile seemed to convince the Lib Dems – well, at least to convince Nick Clegg – that he wasn’t the devil. At any rate, he wasn’t that bad a devil. Secondly, even if they had some doubts about the Tories’ devilish nature, they decided that they’d better sup with them anyway, ‘for the good of the country’ – or perhaps for the attraction of the ministerial cars and the seats around the cabinet table. The idea of not supping with them didn’t seem to really occur to them. Thirdly, they didn’t equip themselves with nearly long enough spoons – indeed, their spoons were very short indeed, and they found themselves sucked into the Tory plans in pretty much every way. Breaking their pledge on tuition fees was just the tip of the iceberg – from secret courts and surveillance to the bedroom tax and the most illiberal justice and immigration policies in a generation, this is, in terms of liberalism, an almost definitively devilish government.

Labour has been watching the Lib Dems over the last four years – or at least should have been – but over the Scottish Independence Referendum they seem to have found themselves falling into exactly the same trap. Not on such a big scale, but ever bit as much of a trap… and with even less of an excuse.

There’s nothing like a ‘vow’ that should ring alarm bells for politicians. Nick Clegg’s experience with the Tuition Fees pledge should have been etched into the brains of every politician in the country – and yet they fell for it again, in a moment of desperation as the ‘yes’ campaign had their fleeting moment of leading in the opinion polls. And yet Cameron, Clegg and Miliband’s ‘vow’ to Scotland was worse than that: it was a trap, a devilish trap, into which Miliband fell face first. It’s another classical ‘sup with the devil’ situation – and again, Labour failed on all three levels.

First of all, they should have recognised the devil. If anyone in the Labour Party doesn’t see the devil in the Tories, they should be ashamed of themselves – and yet I suspect that some of them don’t. The way that the Independence Referendum campaign went, it seemed at times that Labour felt more affinity to the Tories than to the SNP – or indeed to the people of Scotland. They seemed to assume that Salmond was the devil – and hence that Cameron, as the enemy of their enemy, was their friend, and hence not in the slightest devilish.

Secondly, they decided that they should sup with Cameron – that Miliband should join Cameron (and the almost invisible and irrelevant Clegg) in the campaign to save the union. Supping with the devil indeed, but seemingly for a good cause. But did they need to? Could they not have campaigned to save the union without working with Cameron? Without a joint ‘vow’? Without agreeing in some collective way to cancel Prime Minister’s Questions at the last moment? It looked, from the outside, like not just supping with the devil but spooning with him.

Thirdly, their spoon wasn’t nearly long enough – they didn’t see the trap that the devil had laid. The way that Cameron joined the ‘vow’ to the Scots to the ‘English Votes for English Laws’ suggestion less than a day after the referendum result should have been predictable. Perhaps not in detail – but that the cooperation was a trap, and that the Tories would find a way to use Labour’s cooperation against them should have been entirely predictable. The devil will be the devil. And even if Cameron now doesn’t ‘officially’ join the two questions together, they’re connected in people’s minds, and Labour looks weak, looks as though it’s ‘anti-English’, as though it’s ‘unfair’ – and that it has betrayed the Scots.

This, though the devolution and localisations issues for the English and the Scots are very, very different – and sorting out a solution for England, even if there is a problem to ‘solve’ is far more complex than granting powers to the Scottish parliament. English nationalism has become part of the story, and it is a part that the press will love, the Sainted Nigel Farage will play for all it’s worth. It’s a trap, and one that Labour should have avoided.

They didn’t recognise it. They didn’t know the devil even as he invited them to sup. And their spoon wasn’t nearly long enough. It rarely is.

The trap of the demand for constitutional change…

Screen Shot 2014-09-19 at 11.12.49When I first studied human rights, my then supervisor, Professor Conor Gearty pointed me to an article by Michael Mandel, called “A Brief History of the New Constitutionalism, or “How we changed everything so that everything would remain the same””. The article, to a great extent about the effective conservatism of the US Supreme Court over history, starts by referring to the novel The Leopard, by Tomasi di Lampedusa. This is from Mandel’s piece:

“The novel is about a noble Sicilian family at the time of the unification of Italy in the mid-nineteenth century. Italian unification was mainly a matter of the northern Savoy monarchy of Piemonte conquering the peninsula and vanquishing the various other monarchs, princes, etc., including the Bourbon rulers of Sicily and Naples. But there were other elements about and stirring up trouble, anti-monarchist and even socialist elements. In a scene early in the novel, the Sicilian Prince of Salina, the main character, is shocked to learn that his favourite nephew, Tancredi Falconeri, is off to join the invading northerners. He remonstrates with the boy:

You’re crazy, my son. To go and put yourself with those people … a Falconeri must be with us, for the King.

To which the nephew answers:

For the King, certainly, but which King? If we’re not there with them, that bunch is going to make a republic on us. If we want everything to remain the same, then everything is going to have to change. Have I explained myself?”

The point is pretty direct. When people with power see that power threatened, and they see that people without power are demanding change, then they have to find a way to bring about change – satisfying the demand for change – whilst ensuring that this change actually maintains their power.

We’re in the same position now after the independence referendum in Scotland. Everyone – all the political leaders in particular – are acknowledging the need for change. Many are suggesting that what we need is constitutional change in some form or other – regionalism, devolution, devo-max and so forth. All very laudable – but we need to be very careful or we’ll find that the same happens again, and we change everything so that everything remains the same. We’ll have some nice new political structures, but the power will effectively remain in the hands of the same people, we’ll have the same inequalities, the same social injustices, the same blame-games and the same suffering. We’ll spend our energy on what are actually mere window dressing, without dealing with any of the substance.

It’s the substance that needs to be changed. And it’s the substance that’s least likely to change.


The picture above is of Burt Lancaster, in the film version of The Leopard. A great film!

For those that are interested and have access to academic journals, the Mandel piece is in the Israel Law Review from 1998: 32 Isr. L. Rev. 250 1998

Royal Babies…. and human rights!

Screen Shot 2014-09-08 at 13.34.58The news of another Royal Pregnancy – the Duchess of Cambridge is expecting a second child – has as usual provoked a lot of media attention. To say the least. Lots of cooing, lots of cute pictures (like this one of the last little prince to be born), a fair amount of cynicism about the timing of the announcement (in relation to the Scottish Independence referendum in particular) and so on. Flags will be waved, bells will be rung, tears will be shed – but when it comes down to it, will anyone ask the question that comes up so often in other circumstances: ‘won’t anyone think of the children?’ There are many, many reasons to object to the monarchy – but one rarely mentioned is that it’s inherently cruel to the children. Indeed, it might be argued that it breaches their human rights.

The institution of the monarchy brings into play a whole plethora of human rights. Looking at the European Convention on Human Rights (the ECHR), and glossing quickly over Article 4, which prohibits slavery and forced labour (the application of which I will leave to your own imagination), we can move on to Article 8, which covers the right to a private life.

Article 8: Right to respect for private and family life

“Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.”

How much privacy does any Royal Prince or Princess get? As a child, their every move is watched – the huge excitement over Prince George’s first steps was just a start of a lifetime of being snooped on, stared at, scrutinised and analysed in every detail. Of course the Prince or Princess will have protection, and the vast wealth of the Royal Family and indeed the powers of the government will be brought into play, but even so, the level of privacy is minimal. What kind of an institution puts that kind of pressure on a child pretty much from the moment it’s conceived – and certainly from the moment the bump is noticed.

Article 9 – freedom of conscience and religion

“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.”

What freedom does a Royal Prince or Princess have? Their religion is predetermined – after all, they might grow up to be Defender of the Faith. We often look down on religious fanatics who force their children to follow in their footsteps – but Royal Babies are every bit as restricted. No chance to change – even if it’s legally possible, the pressure not to change is so huge as to be almost insurmountable. It could bring about a constitutional crisis.

Article 10 – freedom of expression

“Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.”

Almost none of that for a Prince or Princess. One word out of place and the media will jump on them from a great height. Prince Charles has tried a bit, and been viciously attacked (yes, sometimes even by me) for doing so – but even he keeps his pronouncements to a pretty narrow range of topics. The expectation is clear – don’t say anything wrong. All statements in writing care carefully edited and vetted. Nothing political. Nothing that might be misconstrued. No real freedom at all….

Article 11 – freedom of association and assembly

“Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and to freedom of association with others, including the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.”

How can a Prince or Princess exercise freedom of assembly or association? They’re watched and monitored by the Royal Household, by the paparazzi, by a huge number of others. They can’t meet with who they want, when they want, or associate with who they want. Imagine a trade union for Princes and Princesses….

And the rest…

There’s Article 12, covering marriage,  and article 14 covering prohibition from discrimination, but even forgetting them we’re still left with the institution of the monarchy being deeply in breach of the human rights of Royal Babies.

There’s only one solution. The abolition of the monarchy. We must do it, for the sake of the children.


Victim-blaming: an all-pervading curse

Something has struck me about a whole range of different recent stories, covering many of the different things that I’m interested in: the tendency for the victims to be blamed. I’ve seen it in tech stories, in legal stories, and above all in political stories. It’s often implicit rather than explicit, and often it seems as though the people doing it don’t even realise that they’re doing it – I’ve been attacked for even suggesting it on some occasions – but it has deeply negative consequences, some of which we don’t even notice.

Stupid celebrities?

When Jennifer Lawrence’s naked photos were hacked and leaked onto the Internet, along with those of a number of other celebrities, there were many reactions, some good, some bad. Two, however, had close connections to victim-blaming. The first was the idea that anyone who takes naked pictures of themselves, or allows those pictures to be taken, only has themself to blame if those pictures are leaked. The second was that anyone who puts unencrypted information onto any cloud-based server only has themself to blame if their data is stolen. In both cases the victim-blaming is pretty direct. It’s your fault for having the photos, and your fault you didn’t upload them securely enough. Serves you right.

‘Sluttish’ girls?

A little earlier was the story about inventors developing ‘rape prevention nail varnish‘, so that girls and women can dip their fingers into drinks to see if their drinks have been spiked with ‘date rape drugs’. For many people this just sounded like a good idea – a piece of innovative technology, another tool in the armoury of ‘sensible’ girls and women. For me (and others) it wasn’t nearly so clear: it rang alarm bells of implicit victim blaming.

The victim-blaming here is much less direct – but it works at a number of levels. Firstly, it’s putting the emphasis on what the victim could do to prevent the crime – and hence, at least in part, holding them responsible for that crime. Secondly, by adding to the armoury of tools for ‘sensible’ girls and women it could be used to suggest that any girl or woman who doesn’t use it is not being ‘sensible’, and hence is in some way contributing to their own downfall. It’s not such a huge step from that to the idea that girls and women who don’t do everything possible are in some way ‘asking for it’. They’re sluts. They deserve what they get – and don’t deserve our respect and support when they get it. It’s an attitude that pervades our media in a hideous way – the front pages of the tabloids over the summer, showing ‘scandalous’ behaviour by British youngsters (mostly girls) in places like Magaluf  are just the tip of the iceberg. From most accounts that’s the kind of attitude that contributed to at least some of the failures of the authorities to deal with the hideous evens in Rotherham. They weren’t the sort of ‘deserving’ victims that the authorities should be putting all their efforts into protecting.

‘Work-shy scroungers’?

Perhaps the most common example of victim-blaming of them all is with the current attitude to people on benefits in this country – the regular suggestion, sometimes direct and sometimes indirect, that people who are poor, people who are on benefits, are essentially responsible for their own fates. The latest manifestation of this is Esther McVey’s newly announced psychological ‘attitude tests’ for unemployed people, to see whether they’re ‘resistant’ to work. This is pretty direct: the suggestion is that the reason for people’s unemployment is their attitude to work. If only they had a better attitude, they wouldn’t be unemployed.

Of course this isn’t a rare attitude in relation to benefits – indeed, it might well be the most common. The ‘striver/scrounger’ agenda has been pushed very strongly by almost all the political parties in the UK for the last few years, with almost no alternative presented let alone supported. It stretched to almost all areas: poor people are poor, according to this analysis, because they’re ‘work-shy’, Their kids are hungry because they’re not good enough at managing their budgets, or because they waste their money on flat screen TVs, junk food and binge drinking (which also makes their girls ‘sluttish’ of course). Their health is poor because of their bad life-style choices. Those who are disabled brought it upon themselves – or they’re lying about their disability to start with, because they’re work-shy and are looking for excuses. For all these reasons, they’re to blame, and they don’t deserve anything. It’s their own fault.

Being sensible – and taking precautions

In each of these cases – and in many others – it all looks very ‘sensible’. Of course we should all use more secure online services. Of course we should understand and use encryption. ‘Of course’ we should think about whether it’s a good idea to take a naked picture of ourselves. Of course tools like ‘rape prevention nail varnish’ are helpful. ‘Of course’ it would be helpful to unemployed people to see if they have psychological issues that make it harder for them to find jobs – but we should also understand the messages here, and think a bit more about what those messages mean.

It’s a very short step from saying ‘please take precautions’ to saying ‘those people who don’t take all precautions necessary only have themselves to blame’. Indeed, the second is often the unspoken part of the first. From that, it’s a small step to saying that anyone who becomes a victim must have themselves to blame. Only stupid people have their photos leaked. Only sluttish girls get raped. Only work-shy people are ever unemployed. The more we emphasise the precautions, the easier it is to fall into this trap – and trap it is, because it’s completely false. Anyone can have their system hacked, their privacy invaded, their intimate information accessed. Anyone can get raped. Anyone can lose their job. It’s not their fault – but it’s all too easy for people to assume that it is. It’s all too easy for the people themselves to believe that it is their own fault.

Letting the real culprits off the hook

…and that has many more consequences. If it’s people’s own fault that things happen to them, then the real culprits get a free pass. The hackers who work so hard to break into private data to find people’s pictures. The people who spread those humiliating and damaging photos around the internet – and the people who seek them out and view them. The men putting the rape drugs into the women’s drinks – and then rape them. The bankers who crashed the economy – and the unscrupulous employers who pay peanuts and sack people at a moment’s notice. All the people who are really responsible – and changing whose behaviour would really make a difference – are given what amounts to a free ride. They may even be encouraged to do more – if those stupid celebrities do those stupid things, we’re doing a public service by exposing them. They deserve it.

…but they really don’t. More than that, who are we to judge what kind of photos people take of themselves, what kind of clothes they wear, what kind of places they go to to enjoy themselves? Jennifer Lawrence should feel free to take whatever photos she likes – and certainly shouldn’t be expected to learn to use what really are hideously user-unfriendly encryption systems. I have huge problems getting them to work myself! Women should feel free to go out and enjoy themselves without feeling that if they don’t behave perfectly, test every drink they’re offered, wear only the most modest clothing etc, then they’re fair game for any sexual predator. People should be able to expect employers to behave responsibly – and to pay a decent wage.

Until we stop putting the blame on the victims, things aren’t going to get better. Indeed, they’re likely to get worse. It’s a vicious circle – and we need to break it.

Data and politics…

CarswellOne of the less obvious side shows to the defection of Douglas Carswell MP from the Tories to UKIP has been the report that he may be taking his data with him – detailed data about his constituents, it appears, and according to the Daily Mail people at UKIP are ‘purring’ at the prospect of getting hold of the data.

This raises many, many issues – not least data protection issues. The excellent Jon Baines (@bainesy1969 on twitter) has been blogging about political data issues for some time, not least how it appears that political parties ride roughshod over data protection law and yet somehow the Information Commissioner’s Office does not want to get involved. He’s written something today in relation to Douglas Carswell – you can read it here.  As Jon Baines explains, there are many legal issues to deal with, including a possible criminal offence.

Even setting the law to one side, there are some very disturbing aspects to this.

The first is a moral or ethical one – when people gave their data to Carswell, or to the local Conservative Party, they presumably intended (if they thought about it at all) to help the Conservative Party – Carswell was, at the time at least, a representative of the Conservative Party, and made many statements of loyalty. Would they be happy for that data then to be used by UKIP, a rival party? Some might have UKIP sympathies, and might well follow Carswell in his defection – but many others might not, and their data is being taken along with those who might defect, and without the chance to object or consent. Data protection law should require this – but in practice it might well fail to produce the results it should. Can we expect a moral or ethical approach from Douglas Carswell on the matter, recognising these issues? I doubt it very much. Morality and ethics are in very short supply in politics even at the best of times. These are very far from the best of times.

The second is a deeper one – it seems to me that we don’t consider nearly enough the impact of data on politics. The most obvious aspect of the Carswell business is the gathering of the data, but the use of that data is perhaps even more important and could have even more impact. I’ve written about this before – most notably in my book, Internet Privacy Rights – but it bears repeating. The use of data for political purposes is something of increasing importance. Obama knew that, and one of his key strategies for re-election was better use of data. This piece ‘How President Obama’s campaign used big data to rally individual voters‘, gives at least a flavour of what Obama did – and the beginning of a sense of what might be possible in the future. Data such as that gathered by Carswell could be aggregated with other data, much of it commercially gathered, and used for profiling in increasingly sophisticated ways. Here’s a brief extract from my book (chapter 10) that hints at what kind of thing can – and almost certainly will – happen in the future. Indeed, some of it is already happening now.

“Imagine, for example, tailored advertisements created for individual ‘swing voters’ (selected automatically through profiling), pointing out a party’s positive steps in the policy areas that are most likely to interest them (also selected automatically), omitting those areas where party policy doesn’t fit, and couching it in a language appropriate to the individual’s ethnic, educational, cultural and linguistic background, illustrated with a few appropriate news TV clips, and playing background music exactly to the individual’s taste and voiced over by an actor that profiling reveals that individual likes? The reverse, of course, about the political party’s opponents – negative campaigning and personal attacks taken to an extreme level. This could be extended from tailored advertisements to whole ‘news’ pages where the ‘news’ provider has a particular political agenda, and also (and more simply) to individual automated emails.”

Now I don’t imagine for a moment that UKIP’s operation is anywhere near as sophisticated as that – right now, most UK political parties seem to be lagging far behind the US in this field – but the ideas and the possibilities ought to be giving us pause for thought. Recent events like the Facebook Experiment, which I’ve blogged about before, show how the internet can be used to manipulate people. Political manipulation is just one of the possibilities. We need to be very careful here – and pay more attention to how our data can be used to manipulate us.

Wikipedia and the Right to be Forgotten…

…or why Jimmy Wales might want to support a right to delete.

Screen Shot 2014-08-24 at 17.39.48

One of the more strident critics of the Google Spain ruling by the ECJ, bringing into action at least a form of the much derided ‘right to be forgotten’, has been Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia. He has spoken and written about it in highly critical terms, calling it ‘one of the most wide-sweeping internet censorship rulings that I’ve ever seen’ and, since Wikipedia itself started receiving notifications, ‘completely insane’. His statements, amplified by the obliging British press, were followed by his appointment to Google’s advisory committee on implementation of the court’s ruling. He has so far stood firmly by Google’s side, and against the ECJ – and yet, if looked at from the perspective of ‘openness’, there are arguments that he should shift his position. The so-called right to be forgotten – in some forms at least – is far from incompatible with the principles of openness that underpin Wikipedia. Indeed, it can be argued to be supportive of those principles – or even necessary to produce more openness in the way the internet operates for most ordinary people.

Wikipedia and ‘openness’

Wikipedia is viewed by many as the epitome of the new(ish) idea of ‘openness’ (e.g. http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/aug/10/wikipedia-isnt-perfect-model-channel-4-government) . Crowdsourcing information, allowing edits by anyone. Words like ‘participatory’, ‘collaborative’, even ‘democratic’ are used to describe it – indeed, it’s often used as an example of what those terms mean. These are words that are almost always used positively: participation, collaboration and democracy are seen as fundamentally ‘good’ things. Specifically, they’re seen as good things in relation to the internet: the fight for an ‘open’ and ‘free’ internet, a fight which the Wikimedia Foundation often seems to see itself at the forefront of, is a fight for the sort of internet built around participation, collaboration and openness.

But what does that mean in practice? Take a look at Wikipedia. As a teacher of university students, I often discuss the use of Wikipedia for research. In the old days, universities frowned on the use of Wikipedia – and we generally still disapprove of its use as a primary source (a citation of a Wikipedia page will raise both eyebrows and hackles in any university teacher) – but now it is usually seen as something very useful. You can get a broad brush view of a subject from reading the Wikipedia page – and you can find links to better, more reliable information about the subject. You don’t cite the Wikipedia page, but you can find sources that you can cite by looking at the Wikipedia page.

This all comes from both the strength and the weakness of Wikipedia. It is generally reliable – because crowdsourcing works, and because people with an intimate knowledge of all the various subjects contribute to it – but it is also, and just as importantly, ever-changing. It changes as events develop – new information appears, new views come in and, crucially, errors are corrected, biases revealed and changes made. Inaccurate and out of date information – and irrelevant information – is corrected or deleted from Wikipedia pages.

Deletion of information…

Let me repeat that.

Inaccurate, out of date and irrelevant information is corrected or deleted from Wikipedia pages.

That’s the strength of Wikipedia. Indeed, it is a key virtue of digital publishing – it is dynamic, not static. When errors creep in – whether by accident, by error, by biased editing, by malice (and cases of falsification of Wikipedia pages are well known, as are the strong and consistent critiques of both Wales and Wikipedia) the openness of the Wikipedia platform means that those errors, those biases, and so forth are open to being corrected. Information is deleted. That’s what makes Wikipedia great – and also what shapes the way we use it. We know Wikipedia isn’t set in stone, and that at any particular moment it may include errors or misunderstandings. We know that, so we don’t treat it with undue reverence. We check what we see against other sources. We look for alternative views and compare them to what we see on Wikipedia. We sometimes even help to edit Wikipedia. We treat Wikipedia as ‘organic’, growing and changing all the time.

Treating the internet as ‘organic’

Isn’t it appropriate – and desirable – to treat the whole internet in the same, open way? As organic, growing and changing all the time? Why should other material in the free floating internet be treated as inviolable; privileged by virtue of their form, if we are happy to see it otherwise with Wikipedia? In many ways we know that this is how the internet really is anyway – we know that when we look at a page we need to consider who created it, what sort of people they are, what biases they might have and so on. We know that new material is appearing all the time – every blog post, every newspaper article, every uploaded photo – and we should also understand that other material is being deleted or edited every day. Old, irrelevant or inaccurate information disappears every day. That’s part of the process – life and death are part of the same cycle.

What the internet isn’t, is a perfect archive of truth, set in stone as a record of perfect accuracy. To evoke otherwise, as Wales and the Wikimedia foundation have done, is simply false. It isn’t Asimov’s vision (deliberately misleading) of an Encyclopaedia Galactica in his seminal ‘Foundation’ books, designed to preserve and maintain humanity’s store of knowledge against barbarians and the decline of civilisation. It’s much closer to the reality of Wikipedia. Somewhere were things are being deleted all the time. Somewhere where routes to things are being corrected all the time. Somewhere that should be treated with respect but not reverence.

The right to delete – or the right to be forgotten

That’s where a right to delete – and yes, sometimes, a right to be forgotten fits in. It’s not such a big deal, really – things get deleted and forgotten all the time on the internet. Eric Schmidt and Jimmy Wales’ things, too. The right to be forgotten is just one of many mechanisms through which such deletions might take place. Almost completely overlooked in the media coverage, and the runaway notion that this is a ‘right for the rich and famous’ is the fact that already people with resources and knowledge use ‘reputation management’ services to hunt down and remove uncomplimentary things about them. Already ‘rights holders’ use copyright law to have things that breach their rights removed from the net – and routes to them removed, obscured or deleted. Already companies choose to cleanse old websites, to rebrand themselves and so forth. The right to be forgotten – both in its ‘Google Spain’ form and in a purer deletion of data form – would be just one of many tools through which the internet changes form. That constant changing should be understood and celebrated – and refined not fought and feared. It’s part of what makes the internet so great.

That doesn’t, of course, mean that it shouldn’t be treated critically. It should, very much so. It doesn’t mean that the Google Spain ruling is without fault – it isn’t, and the way that Google has implemented it to date has highlighted many of those faults. And yes, it’s a tool that could well be misused – most tools are, but we don’t outlaw kitchen knives because they could be used to stab people. For ordinary people, in extraordinary circumstances, it could be a real boon. Ordinary people need to be given a chance to contribute, to participate, to be part of that great community that so many of us hope the internet can become. Of course we need to find a way to make it work better. We need to set out more appropriate rules and good, solid guidelines as to how it should be operated – and to reduce the possibility of its misuse. We need all of this, both to help Google and to keep the internet open….

…because that’s the bottom line. Having ways to delete information isn’t the enemy of the internet of the people, so much as an enemy of the big players of the internet. In terms of the ordinary people, it’s very much the internet’s friend. Wikipedia demonstrates the need to have deletion and correction as well as addition as part of its toolkit. Jimmy Wales knows this, I suspect, though I’m not sure he’s applied this knowledge to the internet as a whole. He may not like the way that this particular tool has been developed – for judges and courts are often seen as the enemies of openness, and from an America perspective, European judges and courts may be the worst of all. Nobody wants to be told what to do – and often they’re quite right to resist what they’re told to do.

However, an excessive faith in the ‘record’ of the internet, and an excessive reverence for the way that the internet (and Google in particular) currently works are also enemies of real openness. We need to be open to changes – and yes, even changes in all of these.


This blog post was inspired in part by reading Nathaniel Tkacz’s work on Openness.