In praise of pseudonyms…

A remarkably inappropriately titled article appeared in the Telegraph this morning.

“Facebook will soon let you post using someone else’s name”

The article itself, however, said something quite different: that ‘Facebook is reportedly working on a mobile app that will let its users interact without using their real name’. If true, this could be important – and a very positive move. Facebook have long been the champions of ‘real names’ policies: for them to recognise that there are important benefits that arise from the use of pseudonymity and sometimes anonymity is a big development – because there are benefits, and pseudonymity is one of the keys to real freedom of speech and autonomy, both online and in the ‘real’ world.

Firstly, to dispose of the Telegraph’s appalling headline, a pseudonym is very rarely ‘someone else’s name’. There are cases where people try to impersonate others, but these are a tiny fraction of the times that people use pseudonyms. Pseudonyms have been used for a very long time, and for very good reasons. Many people are better known for their pseudonyms than for their ‘real’ names – and they certainly didn’t ‘steal’ them. Did Eric Blair steal the name George Orwell? Did Mary Ann Evans steal the name ‘George Eliot’? Did Gideon Osborne steal the name George? And looking at the first two of those names, did Orwell and Eliot, ‘belong’ to someone else? Of course they don’t. Another George even springs to mind: George Osborne. Should we inset on calling him Gideon, because that was the name his parents gave him? I’m politically opposed to him in every way – but I’d defend his right to call himself George, and defend it to the hilt. Pseudonyms often belong to the people using them every bit as much as their ‘real’ names. In some ways they’re even more representative of the people: when choosing a pseudonym, people often put a lot of thought into the process, choosing something that represents them in some way, or represents some aspect of them.

Sometimes it’s about presentation – and sometimes it’s to protect your ‘real’ identity in an entirely reasonable way. It’s not that you have something to hide – but that your autonomy is better served by the ability to separate your life in some ways. Without that ability, your freedom of expression is chilled. As I’ve written before, there are many kinds of people for whom pseudonymity is crucial: whistle-blowers, people whose positions of responsibility make open speech difficult, people with problematic pasts, people with enemies, people in vulnerable positions, people living under oppressive regimes, young people, people with names that identify their ethnicity or religion, women (at times), victims of spousal abuse and others. It’s also something that helps people to let of steam, to explore different aspects of their lives – or simply to enjoy themselves.

I use my real name most of the time online – amongst other things because my ‘online presence’ is part of my job, an because I make professional links and connections here – but I’m in a privileged position, without any of the obvious vulnerabilities. I’m a white, middle-class, middle-aged, educated, employed, able-bodied, heterosexual, married man. It’s easier for me to function online with my real name – but even I don’t always do so. Over the last decade or so I’ve used a number of pseudonyms, and still use one now. For many years my main online presence was as ‘SpiritualWolf’, prowling the football message boards: I’m a Wolves fan. I didn’t particularly want to connect what I was doing on the football boards with my work life or even my home life – and wanted my football postings to be judged for their content, not on the basis of who I might be. Online life works like that. I created ‘SpiritualWolf’ – but I also was SpiritualWolf. It wasn’t someone else’s name – it was my name.

Even now I used a pseudonym – KipperNick – when I play at being the BBC’s Nick Robinson, in his role as cheerleader for UKIP, a role which, sadly, he often plays better than me. It’s a very different kind of identity – a clearly marked parody account – but it allows me a certain kind of freedom, and lets me have some fun. I don’t use it maliciously – at least I don’t try to….

…and that, in the end, is the rub. It’s not the pseudonymity that’s the problem when we’re looking at malicious communications, for example: it’s the malice. By attacking the pseudonyms we’re not just missing the target we’re potentially shutting off a great deal of freedom, chilling speech and controlling people when that control is really unnecessary. I’m delighted that Facebook has begun to realise this – though I’ll believe it when I see it.

 

Thanks to the many people who replied to my initial tweet about this earlier today – I’ve shamelessly used your examples in the blog post!

What makes journalists special?

The news that the Sun were supporting an application to the European Court of Human Rights over the Met’s gathering of the communications data of the Sun’s political editor, was greeted with more than a few raised eyebrows. The levels of irony and hypocrisy here are almost magnificent in their chutzpah. The Sun, central to a Murdoch empire that has been mired in scandals over phone-tapping, furious at one of their own having his phone calls (and more, to be fair) looked at – the communications data surrounding them at least. The Sun, whose close links to the Met were a part of the whole scandal that brought about the Leveson Inquiry, calling the Met out for unethical procedure. The Sun, who just days before had been railing against the whole European Human Rights regime, and the court itself, trying to use those very rights to defend themselves.

Despite this, and despite my dislike of the Sun, I, and many others, would support the Sun in their action. Journalists do need protection from surveillance. They do need privacy. They do need to be able to protect their sources. As the Sun said:

“A free press is fundamental to all of our other freedoms. And to have a free press reporters need to be able to protect the identity of their sources.”

It’s a bold statement and one worth further examination. The role of the ‘free press’ can sometimes be understated, particularly when we look at the excesses of the current crop of tabloids. Anyone who followed the Leveson Inquiry knows quite how badly the press can and do behave. Desperate, despicable stuff at times – cruel, selfish, manipulative, voyeuristic, racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, divisive, misleading (or worse), doing their best to bring out the worst in people. Just plain nasty in so many ways – but that should not blind us to the importance of at least something of a free press. Without the press, things like the MPs expenses scandal would never have come to light. Without the press, Edward Snowden would have found it far harder to get his information out – and would have been far less likely to be believed. There are many more stories like this – too many to count.

So a free press is important – and for that reason, the press get privileges. They do get – and might well deserve, though more of that later – better protection for privacy and confidentiality. They get more access to information – through briefings from politicians and others or from ‘press-only’ events, through networks of sources and supporters and so forth. They have an audience that ‘ordinary’ people find it very difficult to reach. They have even had specific legal protections – against defamation, for example, in what used to be known as the ‘Reynolds Defence’, though since the Defamation Act 2013 came along, that has broadened a little so as to be potentially accessible to non-journalists.

All this has historically been entirely right and proper – but there’s something of a deal going on here. Why should journalists get special protection, above and beyond that of ordinary people? What makes the ‘professional’ journalist special – and different from that increasingly common species, the ‘citizen journalist’? What makes a columnist in a newspaper different from a blogger? The unspoken deal was, just as with lawyers and doctors (and even priests) who also make claim to special rules on confidentiality, journalists were bound by different ethics, and had been properly and professionally trained so they could be more trusted – at least to do things like protect their sources. Journalists get protection, and in turn they protect us – and they need to behave ethically in response. Just as lawyers and doctors have ethical guides (which they may or may not follow) press journalists have their own ethical guides. In the past, as far as UK press journalists were concerned, this was the Code of Practice of the Press Complaints Commission – what it is now is still up in the air, and the new regulator IPSO tries to assert itself whilst the supporters of the Royal Charter try to bring about implementation of the Leveson Report. Either way, most journalists would claim that they have ethics.

The real question, then, is whether they follow these ethics – because if they don’t, there’s far less to differentiate them from the rest of us. I write a blog, have had a few pieces published in magazines and on newspapers’ websites – am I a journalist? Should I have the same rights as journalists do? My suspicion is that the lines between ‘real’ journalists and ‘citizen’ journalists, bloggers and so forth will if anything get more blurred. There are already many people on the borderlines, many who sometimes act as journalists, other times as bloggers and so forth. Where does that leave journalistic ethics, and where does that leave journalistic protections for privacy, freedom of expression and so forth?

There are two very different possible approaches. One is to strip away journalistic protections – the other is to broaden them to cover the rest of us too. Personally, I much prefer the latter. Now that technology has given us the capacity to exercise our freedom of expression, the law should help protect our ability to do so. I may not be a journalist, but I do want confidentiality, and I think I have the right to it.

In the meantime, though, we should rally behind journalists in their fight against intrusion. We should, however, also expect them to understand the deal that is going on – and to understand that the pressure is on them to behave more ethically. The less ethically they behave, the less responsibly they behave, the harder it is to justify a special deal. One particularly painful story this week has made this point to me: the death of Brenda Leyland, the women accused of being a ‘Twitter Troll’ towards the parents of Madeleine McCann. This is a story that has almost nothing good to be said about it. What actually constitutes a ‘troll’ is subject to a great deal of doubt, and even if some kind of definition is settled upon, whether Brenda Leyland fits it is another matter. These are complex questions. For better or worse, the law has been getting increasingly involved in activity on social media, whether for malicious communications, bullying, public order offences or defamation – and as the number of people participating in social media has grown, the incidents have similarly grown.

I’m not in any way a defender of ‘trolling’ – but neither am I a supporter of ‘counter-trolling’. Trolling the trolls does go on – and on my Twitter timeline (I follow a lot of people) I’ve seen people make deeply passionate arguments both in favour of the McCanns and defending Brenda Leyland and others. I don’t want to get into that argument – other than to say that I don’t know what happened to Madeleine McCann, and I’m a believer in the presumption of innocence – but the actions of the press, and Sky News in particular, are another matter. We don’t necessarily expect ordinary people on Twitter to behave responsibly, let alone to a special, higher standard of ethics and responsibility. We should, however, have higher expectations of the press. That’s part of the deal. Was the doorstepping of Brenda Leyland appropriate, ethical or well considered? Was it necessary? I hope Sky News is considering these questions – because press ethics matter, just as protection of the press matters. We need a free press – but we need a responsible press too.

 

UPDATED TO MAKE CLEAR THAT IT WAS TOM NEWTON DUNN’S COMMS DATA GATHERED BY THE POLICE, NOT HIS CALLS LISTENED TO.

Politics – why can’t we admit mistakes?

Last night and this morning I had a somewhat extended argument on Twitter with someone who I assume is a Lib Dem activist. The argument started off being about my frustration (and even anger) about the passing of the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act (DRIP) in those few short days in the summer (see my blog post here – a shabby process for a shady law). I was annoyed, and said so, that the erstwhile champion of privacy, and key behind the defeat of the Snoopers’ Charter, my own MP Julian Huppert, had in effect helped push through the law in double-quick time without any chance for discussion. It was, in my view, a mistake on Julian’s part.

That just started the argument. By suggesting that Julian had made a mistake – and in my view a pretty egregious one – I was, according to my accuser, casting aspersions on Julian’s motivations and integrity. I wasn’t, in my opinion, doing that at all. I respect Julian very much, and know that he has great integrity and that his intentions are good. That doesn’t mean, however, that I don’t think he made a mistake over DRIP. I still do – and I have a feeling that he will come to realise that. I may well be wrong, of course – because even if it was a mistake, we seem to have come to a position in politics where we can’t really admit mistakes. At best, we can make half-hearted apologies, generally apologies that we were ‘misunderstood’. The ‘I’m sorry that you feel that way’ kind of apologies.

Following the Lib Dem conference brings this home in a big way. Nick Clegg’s famous ‘apology’ over tuition fees – immortalised in the Auto-tuned version here – was only an apology for a promise, not really an apology for any action at all. The mistake was the promise, not the real actions. The much bigger actions – the much bigger possible mistakes – are never acknowledged, let alone apologised for. The possibility, in particular, that it might have been a mistake for the Lib Dems to go into coalition with the Tories at all, is so dangerous as to be impossible to mention. And yet it might have been a mistake. Things might have been very different if they had not gone into coalition.

It’s not just the Lib Dems who have this difficulty. There are many, many people within the Labour Party who find it impossible to admit that the invasion of Iraq might have been a mistake. A huge amount of energy is still expended on trying to justify that decision, to ‘prove’ that it wasn’t a mistake. Tony Blair takes every possible opportunity to try to persuade us that way. Many of good people in the Conservative Party will, I have a feeling, find themselves in similar difficulties if they do manage to win the election and they really do push for their ‘British Bill of Rights’ plan. The idea that you can admit a mistake and try to find a better way forward seems to have become politically impossible. At best politicians try to gloss over their previous mistakes, or turn them on their heads.

And yet we all know that we all make mistakes – God knows I’ve made some pretty huge ones in my time – so why is it such a problem to admit them? Why is seen as bad or somehow ‘weak’ to admit that you have doubt, or that you may have made the wrong decision. Isn’t it better to admit it, and then find a way to move on? Trying to cover up mistakes, or deny reality doesn’t help anyone much. Well, that’s my perspective. I might well be wrong about it. I’m wrong about a lot of things and make a lot of mistakes.

Human rights and the trivial…..

The Conservative plan for a ‘Bill of Rights’ has been made public by David Allen Green (@JackofKent) here.

I’m sure there will be detailed analyses of it by people far more expert than me – but there was one particular thing in the proposals that drew my attention. The idea is to:

Limit the use of Human Rights laws to the most serious cases. They will no longer apply in trivial cases.

So what counts as trivial? Who decides what is trivial? This may seem like a trivial question, but it really isn’t, particularly when you consider the nature of human rights. What is trivial to one person is far from trivial to another – so who it is who makes that judgment, and on what basis, is critical. As someone who works primarily in the field of privacy, this is an issue that comes up all the time. Those who invade privacy often consider those invasions trivial – and don’t understand why other people complain about this. The ‘nothing to hide’ argument often hinges on this – only ‘bad’ people are bothered by privacy invasion, because the impact on other people is ‘trivial’.

Another example has come up in the last few weeks, with the conviction of Dave Lee Travis for indecent assault. There were a number of articles in newspapers (such as this one by Rosie Millard) suggesting that what he did was, effectively, trivial. The woman whose breasts he squeezed was, effectively, accused of making a mountain out a molehill in complaining. By most accounts it wasn’t trivial for her – she certainly didn’t think so. Whose view takes precedence? Who decides when things are trivial?

It’s not a trivial question. It matters – and if the upshot of the Conservative Bill of Rights is that decisions like this are made by the government, the ‘little people’ – the people that human rights are particularly needed to protect – are likely to be given short shrift. That isn’t a trivial matter.

The Ballad of Google Spain

For National Poetry Day, with apologies to anyone with any sense of poetry….

 

There was a case, called ‘Google Spain’

That caused us all no end of pain

Do we have a right to be forgotten?

Are Google’s profits a touch ill-gotten?

 

From over the pond came shouts of ‘Free Speech!’

So loud and so shrill they were almost a screech

From the ECJ came a bit of a gloat

‘We’ve got that Google by the throat!’

 

Said Google “If it’s games you play”

“We’ll do that too, all night and day”

So they blocked and blocked, and told the press

“It’s that evil court, we’re so distressed”

 

“Such censorship,” they cried and cried

Though ’twas themselves who did the deeds

They didn’t need to block the links

They were just engaging in hijinks

 

And many stood beside them proudly

Shouting ‘freedom’, oh so loudly

‘Google is our free-speech hero!’

‘We’ll fight with them, let’s be clear-oh!’

 

Others watched and raised their eyebrows

Listening wryly to these vows

And thought ‘is Google really pure?’

‘From what we’ve seen, we’re far less sure.’

 

For Google blocks all kinds of sites

‘Specially for those with copyright

And, you know, this isn’t funny,

When blocking things will make them money

 

This isn’t just about free speech

No matter how much Google preach

What matters here is really power

Is this truly Google’s hour?

 

Does Google have complete control

Or do the law courts have a role?

Time will tell – but on the way

Our privacy will have to pay…