Free Speech, “Rape Threats” and the War on Twitter

Control-freaks hate Twitter (cartoon released into the public domain by Carlos Latuff)

Control-freaks hate Twitter (cartoon released into the public domain by Carlos Latuff)

British leaders often invoke the idea that Britain is a “beacon of freedom”. Anyone paying attention though, will note that free speech has always been strongly restricted in the UK: far more so than in the United States, where it is constitutionally protected. Sadly, most British people seem to have a vague understanding of what free speech is, or why it is so important. This lack of love for free expression runs across the political spectrum; of the three large parties, only the Liberal Democrats show any real interest in protecting it.

But the rot isn’t just within the political parties. By demoting free speech behind “security”, “protecting children” or simply “protecting against offense”, our political leaders are merely reflecting the attitudes of their supporters. I’m regularly told, by both righties and lefties, that “free speech doesn’t mean all speech” or “free speech is all very well, but there must be lines in the sand”. Thus demonstrating they don’t understand the basic meaning of the word “free”. Protection of free speech must include “bad” speech, by definition. After all, the ideas that women should get the vote or that homosexuality should be decriminalised were once “dangerous” ideas.

Despite the regular self-congratulations about how free we are, Britain has always had a censorious, paternalistic culture towards “protecting” its citizens from the menace of genuinely free expression. Our television is the most censored in Europe, and our government regularly blocks bigoted loud-mouths from entering the country (as if we didn’t excel in creating our own bigoted loud-mouths). This situation was suddenly disrupted by the arrival of the consumer Internet around 20 years ago, which brought truly uncensored expression to British people for the first time. With the later appearance of Web 2.0 – meaning tools that allowed non-technical people to easily publish content – true free expression accelerated further.

So the powers that be – government, police and media corporations – have always had an unspoken desire to rein in online free speech; to take us back to the 1980s, when they could largely control the flow of information to the masses.

Twitter, a classic Web 2.0 creation, is quite probably the most free mass medium of them all. It represents America’s First Amendment distilled and productised. It allows people to publish what’s on their minds in an instant, and for popular ideas to be rapidly propagated. Twitter is the great leveller: it favours the unknown over the famous. Well-known individuals will always find themselves the butt of jokes and personal attacks, simply because they’re famous. On Twitter, the bigger they come, the harder they fall.

Needless to say, British authoritarians, control freaks and the fascist-minded hate Twitter. Our authorities have tried to keep American free speech at bay since the US Constitution was written, but now it has invaded our country: and we should be pleased of that. Since Twitter’s birth, it was only a matter of time before war was declared on the platform. The police have been flexing their muscles for some time. Since Paul Chambers went to court in the infamous Twitter Joke Trial in 2010, authorities have increasingly tried to take control of online speech. But Chambers attracted great public support; the authorities had chosen the wrong target.

The real War on Twitter began in mid-2013, when a well-orchestrated moral panic was launched. The clear aim of the panic is to create support for the idea that Twitter is a dangerous medium, and must be controlled. And sadly, many people – conservative and liberal – have swallowed the propaganda hook, line and sinker. The word “troll” – which originally referred to deliberately provocative posters in online chat forums – was appropriated by the media and redefined to mean “someone who is offensive online”. This now appears in a variety of contexts such as “abusive Twitter troll”, “misogynistic troll”, and so on.

Twitter has a block button, which easily hides future tweets from people one doesn’t want to see. I try not to ever use it (it would be pretty hard to watch morons if I did), but the mechanism works well for those who do. This means that the more delicate souls can forget that there are rude, foul-mouthed, abusive people on Twitter, if they want to.

The panic had clearly been primed and ready to go for some time. It found its perfect moment when a campaign was launched in 2013 to keep women on British banknotes, following the announcement of a new £5 note to be launched in 2016. A journalist, Caroline Criado-Perez, tweeted in support of the campaign, and received a number of offensive tweets in response: some of the abuse reportedly featured rape threats. Criado-Perez is an attractive, middle-class, young, blonde woman; the War on Twitter had its perfect victim, and operations commenced.

Another female journalist, who followed events on the day, tells me that Criado-Perez only received a handful of abusive tweets; and yet the event was picked up by the press and massively exaggerated. The tweets, from a handful of morons, became a “torrent”, and a “barrage”. A number of female journalists began an ironically patriarchal campaign, the subtext of which was that women are more delicate than men, and should not have to tolerate the nasty language that men do. Online death threats to men (of which I’ve received, and laughed off, many) are just boys being boys, but rape threats to women are beyond the pale.

Over the past six months, the campaign has been pumped up by the media on a regular basis. Learning from the Criado-Perez experience, the bulk of the coverage is dedicated to the online abuse of attractive young women. Feminists of the Women’s Lib generation might spot the misogynistic message being deployed here, but it appears not to have been widely noticed, with many self-declared feminists attacking “sexist Twitter trolls” rather than the sexist concept that women, unlike men, can’t handle nasty words being thrown in their direction.

Eventually, two young morons – a man and a woman, came to trial for abusing Criado-Perez. Yes, a total of two, despite the “torrent” of abuse reported at the time. The trial’s coverage was riddled with misogyny and class snobbery. Photographs of the overweight, unattractive pair were juxtaposed with the blonde demureness of Criado Perez. “Look at these oiks, abusing such a nice, middle class lady”, the news outlets (almost) screamed.

The hysterical coverage of “Twitter trolls” has set out to demonstrate that the problem of unregulated speech is real, harmful, and getting worse. The prosecution stated that:

“Caroline Criado-Perez has suffered life-changing psychological effects from the abuse which she received on Twitter”

The poor, delicate little thing (did I mention she’s blonde?)

I’m probably being unfair to Criado-Perez here; the Crown Prosecution Service were clearly desperate to get a conviction and extend British law into controlling what people can say in public. The prosecution may well have misrepresented and exaggerated her true feelings in their lust to increase their power over public discourse.

In my 25 or so years of online discussion, I’ve experienced far more abuse than I can remember. It includes threats of harm, anti-Semitic and racist comments, and endless personal attacks. And yet the idea of people being prosecuted for mere speech – however ugly the speech – horrifies me far more than the worst Holocaust joke I’ve seen. One of the preconditions for the Holocaust to take place was to silence Jews and other minorities. Free speech protects the most vulnerable in society. The idea that police should have any role in controlling expression is a horrific one, and can only have horrific consequences; and yet those who should be defending our free speech have fallen at the first hurdle because – shock horror – free speech means people might say nasty words to nice people.

It is tragic that, centuries after the Enlightenment, liberals still need educating in why free speech – even including nasty, bigoted, hateful speech – must be protected. Women, minorities and the poor are never protected by giving increased censorship powers to the state. In 1789, America’s founders recognised this and outlawed censorship in their Constitution. 235 years later, it’s about time Britain followed their example.

Pre-emptive Arrests In UK

With the upcoming Thatcher burial (or firing her out of a cannon, or whatever they’ll do with her), some people have been taken by surprise by suggestions that activists may be pre-emptively arrested to prevent them from disrupting the funeral.

If you’re one of those surprised people, you haven’t been paying attention. The police have increasingly arrested people – including those with no history of violence – in the run-up to major events.

This is just one more example of thought crime, which has been increasingly prevalent since 9/11. But, you may say, in a democracy, how can political speech be criminalised? It can’t – democracy is meaningless without the right to protest.

Arrests were made in the run-up to the Royal Wedding in 2011, and 97 people were arrested in the run-up to Notting Hill Carnival that year.

Here’s a video of the political arrest of Charlie Veitch, in 2011, in the run up to the Royal Wedding. He was held for 24 hours to prevent him from making any kind of protest, however peaceful or humour-based. This is what a police state looks like in Britain: polite police officers enforcing undemocratic edicts from above to prevent speech that upsets “the establishment” – whatever and whoever that may be.

Leveson, Corrupt Police and Prostitutes

It should be noted that Lord Leveson, in his infinite wisdom, has chosen to attack press freedom while almost completely ignoring the most serious issue arising from the phone -hacking scandal: corruption within the Metropolitan Police, and the worthlessness of the current police regulator, the IPCC. This fact has also been noticed by the English Collective of Prostitutes, who posted the following update yesterday on their Facebook page:

Prostitute women have suffered terribly from untruthful and unscrupulous exposes in the media which have compromised women’s safety and caused pain and suffering to us and our families. Sex workers are particularly vulnerable as we risk prosecution if we complain. When we do complain, we are ignored.

Last year police raided a flat, accusing the two women occupants of being sex workers – a photographer was with them. He took pictures inside the flat without the women’s permission. When they objected, officers said that the photos were for police use. This was a lie. The women were not charged with any offence, but the photographer turned out to be from the News of the World (NoW) and the next day the photos appeared in the paper and on the NoW website. They were removed only after we threatened legal action.

We complained to City of London Police that NoW was widely believed to be paying officers £2,000 to be allowed to accompany them on a raid, and that the officers on this particular raid had received money. Our complaint was dismissed with: ‘no evidence that any money was exchanged’ and ‘Officers individually or the City of London as a whole do not routinely receive payment from journalists or the media.’ We asked: ‘How routinely is routinely? Once a day, a week, a month? By how many?’What is going to be done about such media criminality? Phone hacking and other criminal activities by the press is only possible because police treat being bought by the media as a perk of the job.
What guarantee is there that an independent board will be any more responsive to the public’s complaints than the IPCC which rubberstamps police actions in over 90% of complaints? What is the point of regulations when government and police are allowed to get away with it once again?

The Murder Of Daniel Morgan

In 1987 Daniel Morgan, a London-based private investigator, stumbled across corruption involving the police. Not long after, he was hacked to death with an axe. In this audio interview, Daniel’s brother Alastair talks about his 25-year struggle against the British state to see justice done.

 

Greek Man Admits Racist Murder on Facebook

Golden Dawn supporter Andreas Asimakopoulos apparently admits murdering Iraqi immigrant

As the global corporatocracy forces Greece into implementing austerity measures that are guaranteed to destroy the country’s economy, the inevitable outcome is a widespread collapse into poverty, a breakdown of society, and the rise of nationalism. Organised fascism has appeared, in the shape of Golden Dawn. Unsurprisingly, the police have been accused of turning a blind eye to anti-immigrant violence – indeed, it’s been reported that 50% of Athens police voted for Golden Dawn in recent elections.

In one of many recent attacks, an Iraqi man is reported to have been stabbed to death on Sunday morning by five individuals. A Golden Dawn supporter, Andreas Asimakopoulos, appears to have admitted involvement in the murder on Facebook – another user took a screenshot of the admission; a translated version is shown above, and the original image (in Greek) can be seen here.

Activists have informed Athens police.

In the mean time, the centre-right Greek government has chosen to launch a huge round-up of immigrants in an attempt to attract votes away from Golden Dawn: a cowardly and dangerous strategy. The original cause of Greece’s ongoing collapse – austerity designed to force the country into selling its assets to private bidders – continues unchanged.

Update: the following is a translation of a Greek newspaper article I’ve been provided: The Facebook user in question has contacted TVXS and claimed that his Facebook posts were just ”jokes between him and his friends”. He has also removed all mention of Golden Dawn from his Facebook page.

Porn Trial: How Consenting Sex May Be Illegal in the UK

Met Police

Coming Soon To A Bedroom Near You

Here’s a perfect illustration of how authoritarians make use of moral panics to persuade people that personal freedoms must be monitored and attacked by the state.

In 2003, a Brighton teacher called Jane Longhurst was killed by Graham Coutts. Coutts claimed that she had died during consenting sexual asphyxiation play, but the prosecution suggested that the two had not been lovers, and that she had been raped and murdered. He was convicted of murder and imprisoned. Much attention in the trial focused on Coutts’ interest in asphyxiation, and on his possession of pornographic images depicting this.

Although no evidence was provided to show that the porn had led Coutts to kill Longhurst (and indeed, such porn has become widespread without an increase in such crimes), a moral panic began over “violent porn”. The Labour government, already hugely authoritarian in many ways, first tried to ban web sites carrying “violent pornography”. When this moronic attempt at censorship failed, their next approach was even more authoritarian: to ban the possession of “violent” pornographic imagery. This was put into law as Section 63 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008, better known as the Violent Porn Law.

Starting from the killing of one woman, and based on unfounded rumours that her killing had been linked to pornography, the UK government had instituted one of the most draconian pieces of legislation in recent British history. Now, a person could be imprisoned for downloading or possessing on video or DVD any pornography that might breach the law, even if they were unaware of the law’s existence.

The key parts of the law defining violent porn are as follows:

  • An act threatening a person’s life
  • An act which results (or is likely to result) in serious injury to a person’s anus, breasts or genitals

So for example, sexual asphyxiation could be deemed to threaten a person’s life. Although many people enjoy this act, possessing an image of someone enjoying it is now illegal. Note that the owner of the image has responsibility not just to be familiar with the law, but to make the decision as to whether is it “life-threatening” or not. In other words a video of two consenting adults engaging in asphyxiation, and causing no harm to each other, may still be deemed illegal, and result in a prison sentence for anyone possessing it.

The second provision is similarly vague. Anal fisting is an act enjoyed by many people, gay and straight. It’s perfectly legal to fist (or be fisted) so long as the act is consensual. And yet, if a photograph is taken, published on the Internet and downloaded, the person downloading it can be imprisoned.

The New Labour control-freaks have triumphed yet again: viewing of a consenting sexual act has become illegal. The government feels it has a right to decide which consenting sex acts are unsuitable for the British public. And to be clear, the key word here is consenting.

As I write this, Simon Walsh is on trial at Kingston Upon Thames Crown Court for possession of images of anal fisting. The police had raided him, found no imagery on his work computer, but then gained access to his email and found images attached to emails that he had received. The police have no evidence that the attachments were ever opened. By the fact that Walsh had simply received images of consenting sexual activity, the police and Crown Prosecution Service have decided there is a case to answer – and Walsh is facing up to three years imprisonment.

It gets murkier: in his professional life, Simon Walsh has been involved in… guess what? Prosecuting police officers who are charged with disciplinary offences. Perhaps this explains the police enthusiasm in finding pornography in his “possession” – and then proceeding with a prosecution.

I wish Simon Walsh all the best in winning his case, and furthermore hope that his victory will be a first step in revoking this ludicrous, draconian law.

The ongoing case can be following via the Twitter hashtag #porntrial. Walsh’s lawyer is Myles Jackman, who can be followed at @ObscenityLawyer and via his blog.

Why London Should Ditch Boris

Boris Johnson, our Moron Mayor

Our Moron Mayor

We’re coming up to the London mayoral election, where the second most powerful British politician is elected; the standard of debate is excellent, as it should be in such an important contest, and the media are doing their job of challenging the candidates on the many critical issues faced by London.

Not. Hopefully you were quick to spot my sarcasm. As is usually the case in important UK political decisions, the race is being trivialised and reduced to two personalities. London’s ever-moronic paper, the Evening Standard, has failed to hold Mayor Boris to account, as has most of the national press, and the entire race has been reduced to discussing smear stories against Livingstone, which are used to dispel any talk about issues and policies.

So let’s cut out the crap: it doesn’t matter if you like or dislike Ken or Boris. It doesn’t matter that Ken keeps newts and can therefore be labelled “slimy”. What matters is that one of the most powerful political positions is up for grabs, but morons are discussing Boris’s hair.

The reality is, only Ken Livingstone can defeat Boris Johnson; and here’s a selection of reasons why you should vote for him with either your first or second preference vote.

Congestion Charge

Ken was Mayor from 2000 and 2008, so there’s no need to speculate; his commitment to good public transport, and to reducing road traffic and air pollution, was nothing short of impeccable. He introduced the congestion charge scheme despite screams from the car industry and the media; he was loudly told the scheme would fail; but it didn’t. It reduced the number of cars, sped up traffic in London and reduced air pollution. He then extended the scheme to the west, again to screams from wealthy car-owning residents of Kensington and Chelsea; but the extension was again a success, and won over local people. Before the 2008 election, he announced plans to charge drivers of high-polluting vehicles (which I and many others would say have no place in a crowded city) £25 a day if they wanted to drive into the centre. This would have further cut congestion by cutting the number of super-large cars, and improved air quality by removing the worst polluters.

Boris, in order to win votes from Kensington and Chelsea drivers (one of the UK’s wealthiest demographics), promised to scrap the Western Extension Zone. This he did, to the benefit of very few and the detriment of many. Boris also scrapped plans to charge high-polluting vehicles £25 – much to the delight of Porsche, who had been suing Livingstone, and whom Boris paid an immediate £400,000 of our money in settlement. After instituting a 25% rise in congestion charge, Boris then froze the cost, benefiting car drivers and leading to an increase in congestion and air pollution. London is now regularly in breach of EU air pollution guidelines, with a resultant rise in breathing disorders and cost to the NHS. It’s worth noting that Boris’s response to worsening air pollution was to attempt a cover-up.

Public Transport

The situation inherited by Ken in 2000 was disastrous, particularly for bus users. Ken put around 5,000 more buses on the road, and enforced bus lane usage for the first time, leading to faster bus journeys. The congestion charge also enabled buses to run faster. On busy main roads, Ken introduced bendy buses which could rapidly move large numbers of people with minimal stopping time. The anti-Ken Evening Standard began a campaign, falsely labelling the buses as dangerous to cyclists; this was a straight lie. Not a single death occurred due to the introduction of bendy buses. Ken also introduced the Oyster card, speeding up and simplifying journeys, and making ticketing less labour-intensive.

In response to the farcical campaign against bendies, Boris promised to scrap them and commission a new Routemaster bus. The new bus wasn’t necessary, and turned out to be hugely expensive at £8m each; only a handful of the new buses have been introduced (“coincidentally” just in time for the mayoral election) but for the same price, 96 hybrid buses could have been rolled out instead. The new bus turns out to be nothing but a multi-million pound election campaign ad for Boris, funded by us, and although it’s admittedly pretty, has done nothing to improve London’s transport.

And let’s not forget: while holding down the cost of congestion charge, Boris introduced huge fare rises – up to 83% in some cases.

Cycling

Boris has introduced two initiatives: the Barclays-sponsored cycle rental scheme, and cycle super-highways. The former is a nice idea that already works well in Paris, Barcelona and elsewhere. I joined it the moment it appeared, and it worked well, for a few weeks. Then, demand picked up and the scheme’s mismanagement and under-funding meant that it became increasingly difficult to use. The cycles tend to distribute themselves unevenly – for example, in the mornings, they migrate from the outer stations such as Euston and Waterloo to the centre of London. If the scheme is to remain usable, cycles must be collected from full docks and put in empty ones. This redistribution system appears to have completely failed; it’s rare to be able to complete an end-to-end journey – either no bike is available at the start, or no free dock can be found at the end. It’s a simple management issue, but as so often noted, Boris doesn’t do management. I quit the scheme after the first year.

Boris’s other cycling “achievement” was the introduction of the “cycle superhighways”. Great name – useless scheme. For a mere £100m or so, Londoners got shiny new blue paint on the roads to mark out the highways. Unfortunately, that’s about all they got. The blue lanes aren’t protected by any kerbs or physical obstacles to motor vehicles, and cars are allowed to drive in them if they want. Inevitably, deaths have occurred on the super-highways; the scheme joins the new bus as an example of an expensive but worthless high-profile scheme whose ultimate aim seems to be the promotion of Mayor Boris.

London Pride

The introduction of the position of Mayor gave London its first chance to develop a city-wide identity since Thatcher scrapped the GLC in the 1980s, and Ken took full advantage. I remember three areas that stood out, and heralded a return of pride in our city.

The first was London’s response to the Iraq War. Our Prime Minister Tony Blair had dragged the UK into an illegal war, against the wishes of the British people. A few months after the start of the war, in late-2003, Bush came to London on a state visit. A huge rally was held in Trafalgar Square to protest the presence of a war criminal in Buckingham Palace. Meanwhile, a few miles further east, Ken Livingstone hosted an anti-war event to show the disgust of Londoners against Bush, Blair and their acts of mass murder. He had also spoken brilliantly at London’s immense anti-war march in February 2003. It was a moment to be proud of London at a time when many were ashamed to be British. It goes without saying that Mayor Boris has not repeated such an event, and has left London devoid of a sense of community or leadership.

The second was the redesign of Trafalgar Square itself. London’s places of beauty had slowly been torn apart by the car lobby, and Trafalgar Square itself became a dirty, polluted roundabout. Ken’s redesign saw a large part of the square pedestrianised, and reclaimed from cars by pedestrians. Artworks were displayed and a sweeping staircase led from the square up to the National Gallery. The new Trafalgar Square is a testament to Ken’s love of London, and his hard work as mayor. Conversely, Boris seems to work little and care even less.

The third was the magnificent RISE festival, a free music festival with an anti-racism theme, that attracted top music acts, and brought together Londoners from all communities in a day of celebration. This became London’s second festival, after the Notting Hill Carnival, and an important community hub. Boris, elected at a time when racial tensions were rising and far-right groups gaining in strength, virtually scrapped the festival. It was rescued by trade unions, but is now a far smaller event with a much lower profile.

Housing

London councils are being forced by the government to relocate poor families – not just the unemployed but many who work – to towns far from London. London is being socially cleansed; property prices are spiralling in a frenzy of speculation, and the poor are squeezed out. This is detrimental not just to our culture, but to the economy too; a city filled with bankers and media executives still needs lower-skilled workers. Boris has said, and done, nothing. He has failed in his duty to defend our city against the right-wing onslaught from central government.

Ken, as mayor, flew the flag for affordable housing and the maintenance of diverse communities. Indeed, he happily admitted that his prime reason for backing the London Olympics bid was to get East London redeveloped, and get large amounts of affordable new housing built.

Policing

The great bendy bus myth was one of two big lies used by the pro-Boris media to help him defeat Ken. The second was far more serious: the misreporting of a “knife crime epidemic” that didn’t actually happen. This resulted in an increased fear of crime and increasingly heavy policing. Random stop and search by police increased dramatically, and was especially used against young black and Asian men. The mayor has a duty to ensure London is being properly policed and listen to community concerns – but Boris has been the absent mayor. Community groups increasingly warned the mayor of an increase in anti-police feeling, and a breakdown in police-community relations. There were clear warnings of riots. And when they arrived in August 2011, few Londoners were surprised. Boris’s response? He turned up a few days later for a photo opportunity with local people who were sweeping the streets clean. He appeared to have little understanding of the issues; he didn’t go to Tottenham, the source of the riots. In short, he failed to lead.

We have an Alternative Vote system – so you can vote for Green, Liberal Democrat or whoever else you like. But Livingstone is the only one who can beat Boris, and deserves your second vote, if not your first. It really doesn’t matter if whether you think Ken is “slimy” or not – London is one of the world’s great cities, and deserves a leader who – pardon my language – gives a fuck about it.