Since the early 1990s, hundreds of millions of words have been produced about the Web. Enthusiasts have told us that it is the greatest communications revolution since Guttenberg invented movable type, and they are probably right. Utopian fantasists have imagined that cyberspace would be beyond the reach of governments – those ‘weary giants of flesh and steel’, as one particularly giddy theorist put it – and they were certainly wrong.
Their libertarian dreams, as we can see tonight, were an illusion. Those ‘weary giants of flesh and steel’ are tougher than they look. They are more than capable of using the new technologies to their own advantage, while censoring what their citizens write online. In the past, I would have directed you to China, Iran or Belarus to see web censorship. But now we can get all that at home.
Politicians and broadcasters are talking tonight as if those hundreds of millions of words had never been written, and we are still living in the pre-Berners-Lee age. They keep saying that the party leaders proposed “press regulation” today, when that was barely the start of it. The establishment – and when all three parties and the extra-parliamentary great and good come together, I think I can describe them as such – has emotional reasons for misleading themselves and the public. They see the excesses and alleged crimes of the tabloids and want to say that the legislation before Parliament will stop them. But there is also a strong element of propaganda. By focusing on the brutishness of the tabloids, they make the public forget about attacks on fundamental principles and perhaps allow themselves to forget as well. For when people behave dreadfully they normally have to delude themselves before they can delude others.
I can see the propaganda’s appeal. Although I believe in freedom of the press in theory, I find the sanctimony, pornography and bullying of much of the press revolting. I don’t think the state has the right to control them, but if the tabloids closed tomorrow I wouldn’t shed a tear.
“Press regulation” as the BBC News was saying at Six and Channel 4 News is saying as I type, does not sound so bad, not even to me, if all it means is stopping the tabloids. The briefest study of the Royal Charter and the Crime and Courts Bill which carried Leveson proposals, however, shows that the first attempt at press licensing since 1695 does not confine itself to the press. In public, the establishment talks about “press regulation”, in the small print, its demands are much broader and very modern: it wants Web regulation.
The regulator will cover ‘relevant publishers’. If they do not pay for its services and submit to its fines and rulings, or set up their own regulatory body, they could face exemplary damages in the courts. It is not just the old (and dying) newspapers, which the state defines as ‘relevant publishers’ but ‘websites containing news-related material’.
As Index on Censorship says, ‘Bloggers could find themselves subject to exemplary damages in court, due to the fact that they were not part of a regulator that was not intended for them in the first place. This mess of legislation has been thrown together with alarming haste: there’s little doubt we’ll repent for a while to come.’
What ‘news-related’ material can get you into trouble? It turns out to be the essential debates of a free society. Dangerous topics to write about include ‘news or information about current affairs’ and ‘opinion about matters relating to the news or current affairs’. Any free country should would want the widest possible discussion of news and allow the largest possible range of opinions about current affairs. As of tonight, Britain does not.
Oh and how could I have forgotten, in homage to the toned and gilded originators of the new authoritarianism, the three main parties are also warning us to be careful about ‘gossip about celebrities, other public figures or other persons in the news’.
Is there an upper limit on readership? Is a website that has a few dozen hits a day exempt? Or do the state’s plans mean that every website that comments on news and current affairs or gossips about Hugh and Jemima must pay to join the quango, accept its punishments, or face exemplary damages in the courts? The government does not know. Alternatively do John and Joan Smith, blogging from their living room about the plight of the poor or foreign affairs, have to set up their own regulatory body. If so, how the hell are they meant to do that? Again, the government does not know. Do not be surprised by their ignorance. When Nick Clegg, Charlie Falconer, Oliver Letwin and Hacked Off, cook up a plan to change fundamental liberties at 3am in Ed Miliband’s office, confusion must follow.
What about Twitter feeds? My editor at the Observer, John Mulholland pulled me up short last year when he pointed out that an approving review Richard Dawkins had written on his website on my last book –on censorship, aptly – had been tweeted hundreds of times after Dawkins put a link on Twitter. ‘That’s done you more good and been read by more people than any review in the mainstream press,’ he said. He was right. Dawkins has 645,000 followers. That’s more followers than the Independent has readers. Should his Twitter feed be regulated? Should he face exemplary damages if he tells the state to piss off, as I hope he would? Or should there be some kind of Twitter limit? If you tweet about the news and celebrities and only have 100 followers will you be free to speak your mind within the laws of the land? But if you get 500, 1,000, 10,000 followers should the new rules apply?
Paul Waugh of Politics Home asked Downing Street whether the new quango would cover Twitter. It didn’t know. The Crime and Courts Bill says that people who publish about their hobby, trade, business or industry and the authors of online academic journals will be exempt. The government is, of course, exempting itself and all other ‘public bodies’ as well, for it would never do for the state to abide by the rules its citizen must follow. Everyone else must submit, as far as we can tell.
The anarchist in me is looking forward to sheer bloody mess this half-baked, illiberal, ill-conceived censorship will bring. It will be a perverse delight to see the regulator overwhelmed and the politicians, who applauded themselves so loudly today, mocked tomorrow. But this isn’t funny because basic human rights are at stake. I am already getting bloggers contacting me, and asking if they need to tone down what they write or sign up to the quango. If politicians from all parties – and let us not forget that just as in Murder in the Orient Express they are all guilty – do not instead tone down this sweeping legislation a great chill will descend on the free republic of online writing, which until now has been a liberating and democratic force in modern British life.
The chilling effect is the most sinister and pervasive form of censorship, and something no robust, plain-speaking democracy should tolerate.
As I say in You Can’t Read This Book , which Dawkins was so kind about.
‘You can be a famous poisoner or a successful poisoner,’ runs
the old joke, ‘but you can’t be both.’ The same applies to censors.
Ninety-nine per cent of successful censorship is hidden from
view. Even when brave men and women speak out, the chilling
effect of the punishments their opponents inflict on them
silences others. Those who might have added weight to their
arguments and built a campaign for change look at the political
or religious violence, or at the threat of dismissal from work, or
at the penalties overbearing judges impose, and walk away.
Update 10.20 pm Downing Street has now told the Guardian that “personal blogs” like the Guido Fawkes political website would not be covered, but news-related websites like Huffington Post UK would.” Still no word on Twitter, I see, but personal political blogs like Guido Fawkes and many another right wing and left wing blog, are hard hitting. They are news blogs, and in the case of Guido Fawkes and some of his left-wing competitors they are large-scale news providers. The distinction makes no sense. More to the point, where is it written into legislation? It’s not in the amended Crime and Courts Bill, while the Charter just says the Leveson “Inquiry recommended that for an effective system of self regulation to be established, all those parts of the press which are significant news publishers should become members of an independent regulatory body”. It does not say what the government defines as a significant news publisher.
This is all going to end up in the courts. The judges will have to clean up Parliament’s mess. I should warn liberal readers that the English judiciary’s record on freedom of speech is dire.
Update 8.30am Tuesday 19 March As you were. Downing Street has dropped last night’s line about exemptions for “personal blogs” – whatever they may be – and has returned to the old line that it doesn’t have a clue what is going on. Be kind, it’s only the government, why should it?