Tuesday, 30 July 2013

What's Behind the Button?

This week's "Twitter storm" over misogynistic trolling and rape threats has been quickly hijacked by the pro-surveillance camp, not to mention self-publicists like Claire Perry (herself guilty of trolling recently). Despite the best efforts of feminists to focus on misogyny and question why the police are reluctant to apply existing laws on threatening behaviour, the bulk of the media debate has fixated on the technology ("we need a button") and the responsibility of social media providers for policing content. Meanwhile, the background mood music emphasises the lawlessness of the Internet and the need for control, despite the growing concerns over the erosion of privacy.

For the avoidance of doubt, I'm not about to defend the right of anyone to make threats, nor do I believe that free speech is unconditional (knowing it was technically criminal damage didn't stop me doing the odd bit of graffiti in my youth, mind). My point is that the media emphasis given to the Criado-Perez case, like the recent emphasis on online porn, serves the purpose of creating a broad consensus that the Internet now needs more "governance". The coincidence of a fuss that would energise the right (porn) and one that would energise the left (misogyny) looks almost too good to be true, but this was always likely to happen eventually in a process that has been running for a couple of decades.

As usual, much of the debate has been led by people who either don't use online services much or don't understand how the technology works. But leaving aside eejits like Perry, the more worrying development is that some people who should know better are misrepresenting the capabilities of the technology. John Carr, a "government adviser on Internet safety", was prominent on Newsnight last night insisting that naughty words could be picked up by software, which might be a worry if you manage the Twitter account of a rape crisis centre (a variant on the "Scunthorpe problem"). The contextual nature of communication, not to mention the human love of ambiguity, means that fully automated control isn't going to happen until we all become cyborgs, by which point it will be academic. He was on firmer ground when he noted that the issue with a report abuse button (perhaps labelled "Twat") was what lay behind it - i.e. how would action be taken and by whom?

Carr is an ex-employee of Newscorp and Fox (MySpace) who has carved out a niche as a pro-control advocate. He also, coincidentally, pushes an online ID product (he's thinking way beyond national ID cards). Though he gets a media profile largely by crusading against age-inappropriate content, he is also a regular critic of Internet governance bodies outside of state control, such as ICANN, and routinely lines up to castigate the Internet companies in the business-government standoff. He is a government stooge, with an OBE. I particularly liked this snippet from his HuffPo bio: "He is one of the world’s leading authorities on children's and young people’s use of the internet and associated new technologies". You'd think there must be a few hundred million teenagers ahead of him in that particular queue, but they don't count as "authorities" (though many would know to capitalise "Internet").

Twitter, like other Internet companies, has a case in claiming that it just provides the medium and cannot be held responsible for the content, just as BT isn't held responsible if someone makes a threatening phone call. However, this is also disingenuous as BT have always provided the facility for phone-tapping and tracing by the powers that be. The real significance of Twitter is that it didn't feature in the list of companies cooperating with the NSA Prism programme (and by extension GCHQ), which might explain it's unsympathetic treatment today. Some hopefully attribute this to the company's ethics, but the more likely explanation is a combination of relative immaturity (i.e. they may not have been approached yet), flaky technology (i.e. they may not be able to meet the NSA's needs), and the easy anonymity of the service (i.e. excess noise over signal).

The wider tussle between the state (government and police) and the online companies concerns how the cost of surveillance will be apportioned. There is no fundamental disagreement over the need for control, which would cement the current companies' position as "preferred suppliers" (licensing and regulation are a quid pro quo). We should also remember that Twitter, Google, Facebook et al care more about profit than free speech. If they didn't, then they would never have gone through (or be planning) an IPO and thus signed up to the "primacy of shareholder value".

The control infrastructure requires an archive of all activity and a real-world identity, but it also requires human inspection. At present, government is having to pick up most of the tab on this, either through its own agencies or via outsourcers like Booz Allen Hamilton, the company Edward Snowden worked for. Though the neoliberal state and the Internet companies have congruent interests, they squabble over the division of costs and profits. The demand that they take action over porn and hate speech should be seen in the same light as their avoidance of tax.

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