Fear and loathing of social media…

There seems to have been a lot of negativity about social media in the last few weeks and months. It has a number of different facets and works in a number of different directions.

Command central for terrorists

One is the portrayal of the social media as evil and dangerous, full of paedophiles, terrorists and worse. We should be afraid of social media. The new head of GCHQ has called Google and Facebook ‘Command Central’ for terrorists such as the so-called Islamic State, something echoed in detail by the Parliament Intelligence and Security Committee’s apparent conclusion that Facebook were the only ones who could have (and didn’t) stop the murder of Lee Rigby. According to this mantra, we need to take control of the social media if the social media companies don’t take control themselves, and accept their ‘social responsibility’

The playground of irrelevant keyboard warriors

The second is the seemingly contradictory portrayal of the social media as pointless, puerile and distracting, reflective of nothing of substance and a great deal of stupidity and foolishness. Social media is something to be loathed. The reaction to the #CameronMustGo hashtag is perhaps the best example – and in particular complaints about the idea that this fact that the hashtag has now trended for upwards of a week (which for people unfamiliar with Twitter trends is something quite remarkable – in Twitter terms) deserves coverage in the mainstream media – and has received it. ‘Why,’ the argument goes, ‘should the real media pay any attention at all to the online witterings of a few dodgy lefty keyboard warriors? That’s not real news.’

So which is it? Is the social media a den of evil, command central for terrorists and something we should all be desperately afraid of – and need to police, to control, to censor? Or is it just the playground of geeks and nerds, lefty political wonks and the liberal media elite, to which we should pay no attention at all? Both? Neither?

A little more complicated….

Reality, as usual, is a little more complicated than that. Social media is in some ways new, in some ways old, in some ways crucially important, in others entirely irrelevant. It needs thought in order to understand, not just a few clichéd words and a bit of pigeon-holing. It’s reflective of ‘real’ life in some ways – and a place and space of its own in others. That, for many of those of us who spend a lot of time using social media, is actually what makes it worthwhile. There are things on here that matter – and there are things that don’t at all. There are ways in which the social media can challenge the ‘mainstream media’, and do jobs that the mainstream media either can’t or won’t do – the coverage of the Israeli incursions into Gaza earlier this year was one of those, opening eyes and then leading at least some of the mainstream media into a very different form of coverage of Palestine and the Palestinians than they had ever shown before. The same for the coverage of the reaction to the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson – social media’s immediacy, the way that ordinary people could get their own experiences ‘out there’, provided something different, and seemed, at least in some ways, to change the way that the mainstream media (or at least some of it) covered the events. That matters.

At the same time, a lot of the other stuff on social media really is pretty pointless. Stories abound that have no basis in reality – or, worse, distort reality and distract from real coverage of real events. Some of the photos of the full and empty chambers of the Houses of Parliament currently circulating on Twitter fit into this category, as Isabel Hardman has revealed in the Spectator. At times, though, even these pictures do matter – or at least I think so – such as the ones I tweeted myself of the empty chamber during the DRIP debate. They mattered then because the chamber really was empty, and that was the only time that Parliament had to discuss that critical debate – there was no other chance to debate it, no committee stages, no public (or even private) hearings, just that debate. That was it.

At other times, Twitter is just stupid and irrelevant – or silly and fun, depending on your perspective. I use Twitter for important, work-related stuff, for political debate – but also for silly hashtag games. My tweet ‘The Hunt For Red Leicester’ in the #CheeseFilms hashtag games remains one of my favourites.

#CameronMustGo

Where, then, does #CameronMustGo fit in to this – and why do some people seem to absolutely loath it? Some have positively seethed when they tweet about how pointless and irrelevant it is, how ridiculous it is that other people are angry that the BBC isn’t giving it more coverage, how much of a distraction it is from ‘real’ news, how it doesn’t have any ‘real’ basis behind it and so on. Are they right?

For me, there’s a lot of truth in what the critics say in detail – but they miss the ‘bigger’ social media picture. Yes, there’s no ‘real’ basis for it – it wasn’t a particular event that triggered the tweets, just an idea to try to get it trending. It’s not one particular action of our Prime Minister that made people think it was time for him to go. It’s also not true that #CameronMustGo has any chance whatsoever of actually succeeding in making Cameron go anywhere – let alone forcing him out of office.

…but very, very few of those contributing to the hashtag would ever believe that it does. The ones that I know, at least, have very few illusions about what a hashtag can actually contribute, or what the point of it is. #CameronMustGo is something that allows people to vent their frustration at a government that they detest – and at a media that seems to ignore them. It was born out of anger with the mainstream media’s apparent obsession with Ed Miliband’s oddness and awkwardness – and their unwillingness to subject Cameron to similar levels of scrutiny. It was an opportunity to have fun too – and the hashtag is full of humorous as well as serious tweets.

That doesn’t mean that the hashtag needs or deserves attention by the mainstream media in terms other than its own: as a hashtag. As a hashtag, however, it does deserve attention. That is, if you’re studying or covering what’s happening on Twitter, it deserves attention – because Twitter trends rarely last long, and for #CameronMustGo to trend this long. The level of dissent, of attention, of focus necessary to keep this trending is impressive – in Twitter terms.

That’s not to be sneezed at – but neither is it earthshattering. It’s a bit of a Twitter phenomenon – but I doubt Cameron will be losing much sleep over it either. The main way that Twitter matters to politicians is that their own injudicious (or at least arguably injudicious) tweets can be deeply damaging to their careers, as Emily Thornberry found out. Twitter matters most to those on Twitter. It’s not really something to be either feared or loathed – particularly by those who don’t really understand it.

It is, however, those who don’t really understand social media who seem to display the most of that fear and loathing. They might do better to listen a little more to those who spend more time on the social media…..

 

UPDATE: 2 December 2014

As I write, two days after the initial post, #CameronMustGo is still trending – and the loathing of it seems to have reached new heights. One Tory MP has suggested witheringly that those behind it don’t understand economics, others that it’s no substitute for ‘real’ politics – while journalists continue to treat it largely with disdain. I can see why both politicians and journalists don’t like it – but at times there seems to be something close to fear in their reactions. It’s natural to be afraid of the unknown to some degree – and the problem seems to be that this really is unknown territory.

Journalists have embraced Twitter to a great degree – but there is still a tendency to look down on it because it’s not ‘real’ journalism. That’s true. It isn’t ‘real’ journalism – but that doesn’t mean that it’s somehow a ‘lesser’ thing. It’s just different. It performs different functions – mobilisation of groups who are otherwise unheard is just one of them. Anyone who followed the ‘IamSpartacus’ movement should see that – and journalists should be able to look beyond their own bubbles and see that too.

Most politicians haven’t embraced Twitter to the same extent – except to #TweetLikeAnMP – and they generally treat Twitter with either fear (as it may end their careers, Emily Thornberry-style) or as a PR tool (as they treat a great many things). That, too, is missing the point. Twitter is something quite different…

…and those behind the #CameronMustGo hashtag have realised that. They’re in unknown territory too, as no-one imagined the hashtag would trend this long. As I noted above, this still isn’t earth shattering, and it definitely won’t unseat Cameron – but neither is it intended to. It does what it does, and on its own terms – and it does it spectacularly well, in comparison to other similar attempts.

Calling politicians ‘childish’ is an insult to children…

Rather than write about the more obvious points about Plebgate – from the actions themselves to the foolishness of taking libel actions when the consequences of losing could be so damaging and when your reputation has already been substantially repaired – I want to write about one particular turn of phrase used by Mr Justice Mitting. He said that Mitchell’s behaviour had been ‘childish’.

It’s a common enough description – and anyone who ever watches the ridiculousness that is Prime Minister’s Questions, the absurd self-importance, name-calling and point-scoring that most politicians seem to get up to on the BBC’s Question Time knows what it refers to. Politicians do seem to spend an inordinate amount of their time – and from the evidence in the Plebgate libel trial not just their time in the public eye – engaging in this kind of activity. They even do it in the laws they draft – anyone who has seen the Social Action, Responsibility And Heroism (‘SARAH’) bill will see that it’s ridiculous, irrelevant and designed only to try to get a few headlines in the tabloids. Absurd is too polite a word for a law like this. And then we have ‘grandees’ like David Mellor ranting and swearing at cab drivers.

It’s an insult to us, who elect them and pay their salaries (and expenses) that they do so – but it’s also an insult to children to call this kind of activity childish. I have an eight year old daughter, and she and her friends may engage in this kind of thing from time to time, but, frankly, not that often. What’s more, they feel ashamed of it when they do it – at least most of the time – and they spend a lot more time being cooperative, friendly, listening to each other, being joyful, free, honest and helpful. What’s more, the ones that I know seem to spend a lot of time really wanting to learn…

…which is something that MPs seem conspicuously unwilling or unable to do.  The point scoring, the straw-man arguments, the bare-faced-lies, the attempts to get things just for themselves, are all things that we wouldn’t (and as parents generally don’t) accept from children. In grown adults, highly educated, highly paid, in deeply responsible positions, making decisions that have a massive impact on all of us, it’s far worse.

Facebook And Twitter – Handling Extremism And Disorder

After extensive consultation, FAT-HEAD has been amended to take into account its lack of clarity over costs (see 8) and the unfortunate limitation of extent (see 9).


 

Facebook And Twitter – Handling Extremism And Disorder Bill (‘FAT-HEAD’)

Contents:

  1. When this Act applies
  2. Facebook and Twitter
  3. Social and Moral Responsibility
  4. Code of conduct
  5. Extremism
  6. Disorder
  7. Acceptance of blame
  8. Costs
  9. Extent, commencement and short title

A

Bill

to

Make provision as to matters concerning the social and moral responsibility of Facebook and Twitter, to ensure that proper cooperation is made with the authorities in relation to morality, extremism and disorder.

BE IT ENACTED by the Queen’s most Excellent Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons, in this present Parliament assembled, and by the authority of the same, as follows:—

1. When this Act applies

This Act applies whenever an event of such significance, as determined by the Secretary of State, requires it to. Events include but are not restricted to acts of extremism, of disorder and of embarrassment to the Secretary of State, the government, the intelligence and security services and the police, or any other event deemed appropriate by the Secretary of State.

2. Facebook and Twitter

The powers conferred through this Act apply to Facebook, Twitter and any other online services, systems, or their equivalents, successors or alternatives (‘the services’) as determined by the Secretary of State.

3. Social and moral responsibility

The services shall recognise that they have a social and moral responsibility above and beyond any requirements hitherto required by the law. The requirements that constitute this social and moral responsibility shall be determined by the Secretary of State, in consultation with the editors of the Sun and the Daily Mail.

4. Code of Conduct

The Secretary of State shall prepare a Code of Conduct to cover the actions of the services, in accordance with the social and moral responsibility as set out in section 1. This code of conduct shall cover extremism, disorder, obscenity, dissent and other factors as determined by the Secretary of State.

5. Extremism

i)  The services shall monitor the activities of all those who use their services for evidence of extremism, including but not limited to reading all their posts, messages and other communications, analysing all photographs, monitoring all location information, all music listened to and all areas of the internet linked to.

ii)  The services shall provide real-time access to all of their servers and all user information to the security services, the police and any others authorised by the Secretary of State, including the provision of tools to enable that access.

iii)  The services shall prepare reports on all its users activities, including but not limited to those activities relating to extremism, including contact information, personal details, locations visited and any other information that may be determined from such information.

iv)  The services shall provide these reports to the security services, the police and any others authorised by the Secretary of State.

v) The services shall delete the accounts of any user upon the request of the security services, the police or any others authorised by the Secretary of State.

vi)  The services may not report that they have provided the access or these reports to anyone without the express permission of the Secretary of State.

6. Disorder

At a time of disorder, as determined by the Secretary of State, the security services or a police officer, the services shall provide the following:

i) Immediate access to location data of all users.

ii) Immediate access to all communications data of all users

iii) Detailed information on all accounts that have any relationship to the disorder

iv) Deletion of accounts of any users deemed to be involved, or likely to be involved, in disorder.

v) Upon order by the Secretary of State, the security services or a police officer, the services shall block all access to their services in an area to be determined by the Secretary of State.

7. Acceptance of Blame

The services shall recognise that their social and moral responsibility includes the requirement to accept the blame for the existence, escalation or consequences of any extremism or disorder. This acceptance of blame must be acknowledged in writing and in the broadcast media, ensuring that the government, the security services and the police are not held responsible for their own roles in such extremism or disorder or their consequences.

8. Costs

All costs for the development, implementation, monitoring, updating and supporting the systems required for the services to comply with the Facebook And Twitter – Handling Extremism And Disorder Act 2014 shall be borne by the services.

9. Extent, commencement and short title

i) This Act extends to England, Wales, and anywhere else on the entire planet, and in addition to inner and outer space, the moon, any planets, comets and other bodies as deemed appropriate by the Secretary of State.

ii) This Act comes into force on the day on which this Act is passed.

iii) This Act may be cited as the Facebook And Twitter – Handling Extremism And Disorder Act 2014.


 

A new Snoopers’ charter, drip by drip?

Snoopy with charterWhen the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act was passed with undue haste this summer, the one ‘saving grace’ promised to us by the Liberal Democrats, hitherto guardians of our civil liberties and killers of the Snoopers’ Charter, was the ‘sunset clause’ of December 2016, and the promise of careful and considered review of powers before then.

That careful and considered review – or rather several careful and considered reviews – began. Specifically, the Parliament Intelligence and Security Committee continued the review that it had begun before the hasty passing of DRIP, while the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation began his own consultation. Both these reviews do seem to have been both careful and considered – I made submissions to both of them, and was invited to a highly illuminating ’round table’ session by the ISC, as well as receiving a fast and clear response by the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation that showed he had read and understood what I said. In both cases, the feeling I was left with was one of cautious optimism. Those of us advocating a more privacy-friendly, less invasive approach were being listened to, or so it seemed….

…but at the same time, something very different seems to have been happening. There have been a series of speeches by important people that seem to be working directly against that careful, considered approach. The incoming head of GCHQ made a speech that was remarkably aggressive – effectively calling Google and Facebook tools for terrorists. The Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police followed that with what amounted to an anti-privacy tirade, in particular condemning the use of encryption, and saying that the net had become a ‘safe-haven for terrorists and paedophiles’. Both seemed to be trying to suggest that the social media was an untamed wilderness that needed to be reined in – and at the same time seemed to want to inspire fear of the ‘deep, dark web’. The Culture Secretary, Sajid Javid, followed that with a speech suggesting that Article 8 – the right to a private life – had gone too far, and again invoking the threat of terrorists and paedophiles.

…and then, yesterday, Theresa May announced more powers for the police – technical powers, crucial, she said, for the fight against terror. Technical, and yet not discussed with the Internet Service Providers Association, or, seemingly, with those few MPs (such as Julian Huppert) who actually understand the internet, at least to some degree.

…and all this, at the same time as the reviews are taking place. It has the feeling of a drip, drip, dripping, trying to build up a stronger ‘anti internet freedom’ atmosphere. ‘The internet is something to be scared of, full of paedophiles, terrorists and extremists’ so needs to be reined in. Theresa May openly admits she wants to bring back the Snoopers’ Charter – despite its defeat the last time around – so she’s trying to lay the foundations for its return. Working on our resistance. Wearing us down. Trying, it seems, to make sure that the careful, considered review is anything but careful and considered – because the invocation of terrorists and paedophiles makes it impossible to be careful and considered. If you aren’t in favour of these obviously sensible measures, you’re on the side of the extremists, of the terrorists, of the paedophiles. Today, whilst debating the subject on Twitter, I was effectively told that I would have blood on my hands if I opposed the extension of powers.

We should do our very best to resist this. The review must be careful and considered – because there are significant and important issues at stake. Privacy matters – as do all the rights and needs that it supports, from freedom of expression to freedom of assembly and association. Civil liberties like these need privacy – because without that privacy there is a distinct and direct chill. Those of us who suggest that surveillance has gone too far can point to a number of recent revelations – that communications between journalists and their sources, between lawyers and their clients, between prisoners and their MPs, have all been compromised. This matters – and needs to be taken seriously.

On the other hand security also matters – and none of those who I know as privacy advocates deny this, despite what some of our opponents might suggest. We know that it matters – and want to have a sensible, rational, level-headed review of the whole system. We don’t expect our privacy needs to override security – but we do expect that some kind of a balance can be found. That needs an atmosphere without the kind of hyperbole that has been produced in the last few weeks. Can we find that? It does not seem very hopeful at the moment, particularly with a general election looming at the two major parties seemingly competing to see who can be ‘tougher’. I hope we can be equally tough – but tough in terms of fighting for our rights. If we’re not, then we’ll have a new Snoopers’ Charter before we’re even aware what is happening.

 

#TweetlikeanMP?

A year or two back, the hashtag #TweetlikeanMP trended – and it was fun. Inane tweets about meeting and greeting constituents, about party loyalty, about attending crucial meetings with business groups, lovely photo opportunities and so on. It was funny because it was, to a great extent, true – and because it revealed something about the way that our politics works. It also showed how badly MPs generally used Twitter – how they missed the opportunities that Twitter provides, opportunities to genuinely engage with their constituencies, to listen as well as to broadcast to the populace how wonderful they are. Opportunities to show that they’re human – and not just this remote, elite group looking down on the rest of us.

In the last couple of years, I’ve ‘met’ a fair few MPs who have been able to do it differently – to understand how Twitter can really work, and to engage with it. My own MP, Julian Huppert, is one of them – in practice, tweeting ‘to’ him is the best way to engage with him. I get answers – and real ones – most of the time, and I get the sense that he’s actually listening.He’s not alone – and it’s not been, so far, a party thing. I’ve engaged with MPs of all parties online, and of a wide range of views within each party. Michael Fabricant, Jamie Reed, Caroline Lucas amongst others – and members of the House of Lords from Ralph Lucas, Meral Hussein-Ece, Steve Bassam. I’ve even exchanged tweets with Nigel Farage. It felt as though twitter gave an opportunity to reach out to politicians, and to actually engage with them…

….which is one of the reasons I’m deeply saddened by what happened to Emily Thornberry last night. It’s not that I think her tweeted picture was anything but foolish, ill-judged, insensitive and revealing. It was all of those things… but the consequences are likely to be that MPs will retreat into their shells on social media. The way that she resigned just a few hours after ‘the’ tweet will have sent shivers down the spines of MPs across the spectrum – and party whips will be, well, cracking the whip, to keep their MPs in line for these next six months. We’ll see less humanity, less engagement, less humour – and much more ‘tweeting like an MP’ from everyone. An opportunity for politics to become more engaged will be lost – and at a time when the detachment of MPs from ordinary people is one of the main problems in politics, as Thornberry’s tweet sadly shows.

Of course there are other reasons to find yesterday’s turn of events saddening – from the level of abuse that Thornberry got on Twitter (regardless of what you think of the tweet, abuse like that is deeply unpleasant) to the fact that we’ve lost another woman from frontline politics, and another of those increasingly rare lawmakers who actually understands law has departed for the backbenches, at a time when parliament is trying to put through legal absurdities like Chris Grayling’s ‘Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism Bill’ (SARAH).

Don’t misunderstand me – in the circumstances I’m not at all surprised that Thornberry resigned, and I do understand why Labour MPs like Chris Bryant were so sure that she was right to do so. I do, however, think that the consequences may be wider than we suspect – and one part is that we’ll see far more MPs just tweeting like MPs, not like human beings. That, regardless of the rest, is sad.

Surveillance, power and chill…. and the Chatham House Rule

Yesterday I attended a conference at Wilton Park about privacy and security – some really stellar people from all the ‘stakeholders’, industry, government, civil society, academia and others, and from all over the world. A version of the Chatham House rule applied, making the discussion robust and open…. something to which I will return.

At one point, in a conversation over coffee, one of the other delegates asked me a direct question: had I seen any evidence of the ‘chilling effect’ of surveillance. They’d been told the previous day by someone from civil society that in the US there had been a direct chill – in particular of advocacy groups – as a result of the Snowden revelations, something that has been reported before a number of times, but that it’s hard to ‘prove’ in ways that seem to convince people. As I sipped my coffee I thought about it – and realised that I, personally, had seen two different but very graphic and direct examples of chill in the past few weeks, though I hadn’t thought of either of them in that kind of a direct way.

The first was the Samaritans Radar debacle. Not just theoretically, but individually I had been told by more than one person that they were keeping off Twitter for a while as a result of feeling under observation as a result of Samaritans Radar. Their tweets could be being scanned, and by people who they didn’t trust, and who they felt could do them harm. The second was even more direct, but I can’t give details. Another person, who felt under real, direct threat – their life in danger – told me they would be keeping offline for a while.

In both cases they felt threatened – not just because they felt under surveillance, but because they felt themselves under surveillance by others who have power over them. The power, it seemed to me, was one of keys – and one of the reasons that so many people, particularly in the UK, don’t find surveillance threatening. Where Samaritans Radar was concerned, a lot of the people affected were the sort of people who are vulnerable in various ways – partly because of their mental health issues, but more directly because they were under threat, whether from trolls and stalkers or from certain people in positions of authority. Some have very good reason to worry about how the local authorities or even mental health services might treat them. Or how their relatives might treat them. For my other friend, the threat was even more direct – and proven.

So yes, the chill of surveillance is real. And, perhaps most importantly, it’s real for precisely those people that need support in freedom of expression terms. People whose voices are heard the least often – and people who have the most need to be able to take advantage of the opportunities that our modern communications systems offer. The internet can enable a great deal, particularly for people in those kinds of positions – from freedom of expression to freedom of assembly and association and much, much more – but surveillance can not just jeopardise that but reverse it. If it only enables freedom of speech for those already with power, it exacerbates the power differences, and makes those already quiet even quieter, whilst those with power and voice can get their messages across even more powerfully.

…which bring me back to the conference, and the Chatham House Rule. Even the existence of the rule makes it clear that we understand that the chilling effect exists. If we know that for people to really speak freely, they need to know that their comments will not be attributed to them – the essence of the rule – then we must make the leap to recognise that surveillance chills. Surveillance is precisely about linking people’s communications to them as individuals – not just what they say, but what they seek out to read. At our conference, we gave ourselves – the vast majority of us people with at least some power and influence – the benefits of this. Surveillance, and mass surveillance by others with power over us – whether that means our or other governments, massive corporations (Google, Facebook etc) or others – denies that benefit to us all.

So who’s breaking the internet this time?

I’m not sure how many times I’ve been told that the internet is under dire threat over the last few years. It sometimes seems as though there’s an apocalypse just around the corner pretty much all the time. Something’s going to ‘break’ the internet unless we do something about it right away. These last few weeks there seem to have been a particularly rich crop of apocalyptic warnings – Obama’s proposal about net neutrality yesterday being the most recent. The internet as we know it seems as though it’s always about to end.

Net neutrality will destroy us all…

If we are to believe the US cable companies, Obama’s proposals will pretty much break the internet, putting development back 20 years. How many of us remember what the internet was like in 1994? Conversely, many have been saying that if we don’t have net neutrality – and Obama’s proposals are pretty close to what most people I know would understand by net neutrality – then the cable companies will break the internet. It’s apocalypse one way, and apocalypse the other: no half measures here.

The cable companies are raising the spectre of government control of the net, something that has been a terror of internet freedom activists for a very long time – in our internet law courses we start by looking at John Perry Barlow’s 1996 ‘Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace’, with its memorable opening:

“Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.” 

Another recent incarnation of this terror has been the formerly much hyped fear that the UN, through the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) was about to take over the internet, crushing our freedom and ending the Internet as we know it. Anyone with real experience of the way that UN bodies work would have realised this particular apocalypse had next-to-no chance of every coming into fruition, and last week that must have become clear to most of even the more paranoid of internet freedom fighters, as the ITU effectively resolved not to even try… Not that apocalypse, at least not now.

More dire warnings and apocalyptic worries have been circling about the notorious ‘right to be forgotten’ – either in its data protection reform version or in the Google Spain ruling back in May. The right to be forgotten, we were told, is the biggest threat to freedom of speech in the coming decade, and will change the internet as we know it. Another thing that’s going to break the internet. And yet, even though it’s now effectively in force in one particular way, there’s not much sign that the internet is broken yet…

The deep, dark, disturbing web…

At times we’re also told that a lack of privacy will break the net – or that privacy itself will break the net. Online behavioural advertisers have said that if they’re not allowed to track us, we’ll break the economic model that sustains the net, so the net itself will break. We need to let ourselves be tracked, profiled and targeted or the net itself will collapse.  The authorities seem to have a similar view – recent pronouncements by Metropolitan Police Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe and new head of GCHQ Robert Hannigan are decidedly apocalyptic, trying to terrify us with the nightmares of what they seemingly interchangeably call the ‘dark’ web or the ‘deep’ web. Dark or deep, it’s designed to disturb and frighten us – and warn us that if we keep on using encryption, claiming anonymity or pseudonymity or, in practice, any kind of privacy, we’ll turn the internet into a paradise only for paedophiles, murderers, terrorists and criminals. It’s the end of the internet as we know it, once more.

And of course there’s the converse view – that mass surveillance and intrusion by the NSA, GCHQ etc, as revealed by Edward Snowden – is itself destroying the internet as we know it.

Money, money, money

Mind you, there are also dire threats from other directions. Internet freedom fighters have fought against things like SOPA, PIPA and ACTA – ways in which the ‘copyright lobby’ sought to gain even more control over the internet. Again, the arguments go both ways. The content industry suggest that uncontrolled piracy is breaking the net – while those who fought against SOPA etc think that the iron fist of copyright enforcement is doing the same. And for those that have read Zittrain’s ‘The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It’, it’s something else that’s breaking the net – ‘appliancization’ and ‘tethering’. To outrageously oversimplify, it’s the iPhone that’s breaking the net, turning it from a place of freedom and creativity into a place for consumerist sheep.

It’s the end of the internet as we know it…..

…or as we think we know it. We all have different visions of the internet, some historical, some pretty much entirely imaginary, most with elements of history and elements of wishful thinking. It’s easy to become nostalgic about what we imagine was some golden age, and fearful about the future, without taking a step back and wondering whether we’re really right. The internet was never a ‘wild west’ – and even the ‘wild west’ itself was mostly mythical – and ‘freedom of speech’ has never been as absolute as its most ardent advocates seem to believe. We’ve always had some control and some freedom – but the thing about the internet is that, in reality, it’s pretty robust. We, as an internet community, are stronger and more wilful than some of those who wish to control it might think. Attempts to rein it in often fail – either they’re opposed or they’re side-stepped, or they’re just absorbed into the new shape of the internet, because the internet is always changing, and we need to understand that. The internet as we know it is always ending – and the internet as we don’t know it is always beginning.

That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t fight for what we want – precisely the opposite. We should always do so. What it does mean is that we have to understand is that sometimes we will win, and sometimes we will lose. Sometimes it will be good that we win, sometimes it will be good when we lose. Whatever happens, we have to find a way – and we probably will.