A disturbing plan for control…

The Conservative Manifesto, unlike the Labour Manifesto, has some quite detailed proposals for digital policy – and in particular for the internet. Sadly, however, though there are a few bright spots, the major proposals are deeply disturbing and will send shivers down the spine of anyone interested in internet freedom.

Their idea of a ‘digital charter’ is safe, bland, motherhood and apple-pie stuff about safely and security online, with all the appropriate buzzwords of prosperity and growth. It seems a surprise, indeed, that they haven’t talked about having a ‘strong and stable internet’. They want Britain to be the best place to start and run a digital business, and to make Britain the safest place in the world to be online. Don’t we all?

When the detail comes in, some of it sounds very familiar to people who know what the law already says – and in particular what EU law already says – the eIDAS, the E-Commerce Directive, the Directive on Consumer Rights already say much of what the Tory Manifesto says. Then, moving onto data protection, it gets even more familiar:

“We will give people new rights to ensure they are in control of their own data, including the ability to require major social media platforms to delete information held about them at the age of 18, the ability to access and export personal data, and an expectation that personal data held should be stored in a secure way.”

This is all from the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), passed in 2016, and due to come into force in 2018. Effectively, the Tories are trying to take credit for a piece of EU law – or they’re committing (as they’ve almost done before) to keeping compliant with that law after we’ve left the EU. That will be problematic, given that our surveillance law may make compliance impossible, but that’s for another time…

“…we will institute an expert Data Use and Ethics Commission to advise regulators and parliament on the nature of data use and how best to prevent its abuse.”

This is quite interesting – though notable that the word ‘privacy’ is conspicuous by its absence. It is, perhaps, the only genuinely positive thing in the Tory manifesto as it relates to the internet.

“We will make sure that our public services, businesses, charities and individual users are protected from cyber risks.”

Of course you will. The Investigatory Powers Act, however, does the opposite, as does the continued rhetoric against encryption. The NHS cyber attack, it must be remembered, was performed using a tool developed by GCHQ’s partners in the NSA. If the Tories really want to protect public services, businesses, charities and individuals, they need to change tack on this completely, and start promoting and supporting good practice and good, secure technology. Instead, they again double-down in the fight against encryption (and thus against security):

“….we do not believe that there should be a safe space for terrorists to communicate online and will work to prevent them from having this capability.”

…but as anyone with any understanding of technology knows, if you stop terrorists communicating safely, you stop all of us from communicating safely.


“…we also need to take steps to protect the reliability and objectivity of information that is essential to our democracy and a free and independent press.”

This presumably means some kind of measures against ‘fake news’. Most proposed measures elsewhere in the world are likely to amount to censorship – and given what else is in the manifesto (see below) I think that is the only reasonable conclusion here.

“We will ensure content creators are appropriately rewarded for the content they make available online.”

This looks as though it almost certainly means harsher and more intense copyright enforcement. That, again, is only to be expected.

Then, on internet safety, they say:

“…we must take steps to protect the vulnerable… …online rules should reflect those that govern our lives offline…”

Yes, We already do.

“We will put a responsibility on industry not to direct users – even unintentionally – to hate speech, pornography, or other sources of harm”

Note that this says ‘pornography’, not ‘illegal pornography’, and the ‘unintentionally’ part begins the more disturbing part of the manifesto. Intermediaries seem likely to be stripped of much of their ‘mere conduit’ protection – and be required to monitor much more closely what happens through their systems. This, in general, has two effects: to encourage surveillance, and to encourage caution about content (effectively to chill speech). This needs to be watched very carefully indeed.

“…we will establish a regulatory framework in law to underpin our digital charter and to ensure that digital companies, social media platforms and content providers abide by these principles. We will introduce a sanctions regime to ensure compliance, giving regulators the ability to fine or prosecute those companies that fail in their legal duties, and to order the removal of content where it clearly breaches UK law.”

This is the most worrying part of the whole piece. Essentially it looks like a clampdown on the social media – and, to all intents and purposes, the establishment of a full-scale internet censorship system (see the ‘fake news’ point above). Where the Tories are refusing to implement statutory regulation for the press (the abandonment of part 2 of Leveson is mentioned specifically in the manifesto, along with the repeal of Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013, which was one of the few bits of Leveson part 1 that was implemented) they look very much as though they want to impose it upon the online media. The Daily Mail will have more freedom than blogging platforms, Facebook and Twitter – and you can draw your own conclusions from that.

When this is all combined with the Investigatory Powers Act, it looks very much like a solid clampdown on internet freedom. Surveillance has been enabled – this will strengthen the second part of the authoritarian pincer movement, the censorship side. Privacy has been wounded, now it’s the turn of freedom of expression to be attacked. I can see how this will be attractive to some – and will go down very well indeed with both the proprietors and the readers of the Daily Mail – but anyone interested in internet freedom should be very much disturbed.


Anonymity, trolls – and defamation?

A headline on the BBC’s website this morning reads:

“Websites to be forced to identify trolls under new measures”

Beneath it, the first sentence says something somewhat different:

“Websites will soon be forced to identify people who have posted defamatory messages online”

It’s interesting that the two ideas are considered equivalent. Are ‘trolls’ those who post defamatory messages online? Are those who post defamatory messages online ‘trolls’? For me, at least, neither of those statements are really true – though of course the idea of a ‘troll’ is something that’s hard to define with any precision. Trolls, for me at least (and I’m a bit of an old hand in internet terms), are people who try to provoke and offend, to get people to ‘bite’ – not necessarily or even particularly regularly through the use of defamation. They use a variety of tactics, from just saying stupid and annoying things to the most direct and offensive – and intimidating – things imaginable. Defamation may indeed be one of their tools, but at best it’s a side issue.

Taking that a step further, the trigger for this appears to have been the Nicola Brookes case (see e.g. here) – which was about bullying, abuse and harassment much more than it was about defamation. Sure, being called a paedophile and a drug-dealer was technically defamatory, but I don’t think defamation was what bothered Nicola Brookes. She wasn’t worrying about her reputation – she was being harassed, even ‘tortured’ in her own words.

It’s not about defamation

So why are the stories about defamation – and why is Ken Clarke suggesting changes to the Defamation Bill to deal with them? Are there other motives here? Is there something quite different going on? I suspect so – and I fear that this may be yet another attempt to use a hideous event to bring in powers that can and will be used for something quite different from that which the event concerns.

We already have the law to deal with trolls and bullies – which is why Nicola Brookes won her case, and why the man who trolled Louise Mensch was convicted, and quite rightly, in my opinion. Harassment and bullying needs dealing with – but we have to be very careful about how we balance things here. Anonymity may sometimes be used to cloak bullies and trolls – but it is also crucial to protect whistleblowers, to protect victims of domestic abuse from being tracked down by their abusers, to enable people to express important and valid opinions without fear of oppression or retribution.

Anonymity matters

This may not appear obvious in a country like ours – but what about in places like China? In Syria? The extremes demonstrate the point – and when situations become more extreme, even ‘liberal’ governments can reveal their authoritarian tendencies. We need to be sure that we don’t set in place the infrastructure – both legal and technical – that allows those authoritarian tendencies to be used too easily. My favourite quote, from the excellent Bruce Schneier, is apt here (again):

“It’s bad civic hygiene to build an infrastructure that can be used to facilitate a police state.” (see his blog here)

Acting to give too many powers (and imposing too many duties) to break anonymity would be a step in this direction – particularly through confusing (intentionally or otherwise) defamation and trolling! We should resist it, and resist it strongly.

A Disinformation Age?

Those of us who are fans of Silent Witness had a pretty traumatic beginning to the week. This week’s show, which broadcasts its two-hour drama in two hour-long parts, one on Monday and one on Tuesday, included some truly traumatic stuff: those of us who watched on Monday night saw one of the three main characters, Dr Harry Cunningham, seemingly brutally executed, doused with petrol and then set on fire. It was very realistic – so much that someone naive like me was totally convinced, and even began to mourn poor Harry, my favourite character.

What has this got to do with the subject of this blog, and why have I called it ‘the disinformation age’? Well, being a bit of a geek, my laptop was sitting on my coffee table as I watched the programme, and as the titles rolled at the end of the show, I found myself immediately looking on the web to try to find out what would happen next – being naive, it still hadn’t occurred to me that Harry wasn’t actually dead. I was wondering whether they were going to replace him, or whether this was going to be the end of the show, or something else dramatic. I couldn’t find much directly, so I checked on the fount of all wisdom, Wikipedia. There wasn’t much there, but there was a list of the main characters, and how long they had been in the show. Of the three main actors, William Gaminara was listed as being in the show ‘2002-present’, Emilia Fox as ‘2004-present’, and Tom Ward, who plays Harry, was listed as ‘2002-2011’. That last fact confirmed, it seemed, that Harry was dead, gone from the show….

Of course the BBC had done the usual kind of tricks to hide the fact that Harry wasn’t actually dead – he didn’t appear in the trailer for the second part, and the actor’s name was conspicuous by its absence from the opening titles, so it was a solid shock when he did reappear, some time into Tuesday’s episodes – and added to the fact that the previous episode had been full of flashbacks and dream sequences, it took some time to realise what was actually going on. That, however, is just ordinary broadcasting, and nothing that out of the ordinary. At the end of the episode, rejoicing at Harry’s return, I went back to Wikipedia – and already the page had mysteriously changed, listing Tom Ward as ‘2002-present’….

So what was going on? Why do I call it the ‘disinformation age’? Well, of course I don’t know who edited the Wikipedia page – but if it was anyone connected to the BBC, I’m impressed. They had thought through how to really convince people that the character was dead, had understood what people like me were likely to do, and set out to create a perfect illusion – to supply the disinformation needed to complete that illusion. On me, it worked – though I know very well I’m naive in a lot of ways, and actually like to be convinced by this kind of thing – but there is a somewhat more sinister side to this. If illusions like this can be created for artistic reasons, aren’t they equally likely to be created for other, less palatable purposes? And then what do we trust? ‘Official’ information? ‘Trusted’ sources? A combination of these? Could we be moving to an age where as much effort is put into the creation of false information as is put into the presentation of real information? A disinformation age?

One thing’s for sure – I’ll be even less trusting than I was before….. and that, in itself, may not be such a good thing. Mind you, I thought the week’s Silent Witness was great!