“…one of the things you’ve got to ask about these technologies is: what can they do to the weakest people, and what advantages do they give the strongest institutions? We’ve spent twenty years thinking romantically about the internet – in effect “oh what a lovely playground” – and I think we’re beginning to see now that it’s being colonised, it’s becoming an arena of power.”
Last week King’s Review talked to Baroness Onora O’Neill, chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, crossbench member of the House of Lords, and Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Cambridge. Our discussion began with O’Neill’s evidence to the Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the British press, and moved on to consider the ethics of publication, privacy, anonymity and data-gathering online in light of the recent GCHQ/NSA scandal brought to light by the Guardian’s investigative journalism. We hope you enjoy the conversation.
The government recently proposed a Royal Charter, which would oversee a new press regulator. This step has been described by some journalists as a shackling of the press, as a regressive step. Do you think this description is accurate?
No, I think that the press has been accustomed to a particular form of self-regulation, which I would call self-interested regulation, and the bodies we have had, the PCC [Press Complaints Commission] and its predecessors, have been demonstrably ineffective. I don’t say this because there were criminal acts – there was (by definition) legislation against those acts – but because their capacity to sanction their members turned out to be too slight, because the culture ran away. Even their complaints procedure was ineffective. It’s extraordinary, because up and down the country we have businesses that have quite effective complaints procedures for good reputational reasons. The PCC didn’t. They established a very narrow gateway for what could come in as a complaint and then they did what they called “reconciliation” – basically they were nice to people until they went away – and they hardly ever printed any substantive corrections or apologies, so even that most elementary function wasn’t being handled well. So I think you have to say that it might be ideal to have a competent, self-regulating body. But it’s pretty clear, after decades during which everybody’s agreed that this is what you want, that you can’t get it just by letting the press regulate themselves.
As for the question of shackles, that is being said by a lot of people in the media today, and if it were proposed that there should be a state-controlled body that could censor content, the metaphor might be appropriate. Nobody has proposed that.
In your 2011 Reuters Memorial lecture you cited Tom Paine’s 1806 essay, in which he writes that “Nothing is more common with printers, especially of newspapers, than the continual cry of the Liberty of the Press, as if because they are printers they are to have more privileges than other people”. Do you think that part of the problem thus far has been the monopoly on the debate about press freedom held by the press itself, which has led to a biased conversation?
I think there is quite a complicated set of reasons why the debate is so essentially trivial within the media. One reason is that it’s obviously quite difficult even for editors who are very worried about what’s happened to side with Leveson. It’s also clearly very, very difficult for politicians to take a stand. And especially if you think about the process that’s being used: the Royal Charter proposals. As I see the process, first, Cameron, rightly, seeing that things had got out of hand, set up an inquiry that was to be both retrospective and prospective. The retrospective task could not be done properly by Leveson because so much of it was sub judice – and as you know the trials are only beginning in some cases. On the prospective task he was criticised before he’d said a word, and a very typical comment was that there should be no press regulation; the press should be free to say what they want within the law. Now that is in my view a completely inappropriate intervention in a debate about policy, because the point is to debate what the law should be. We all agree that action has to be “within the law”. The question is what should those laws be. And Leveson obviously takes to heart all the classical arguments since the seventeenth century about censorship and prior restraint and he’s looking for a way in which you take those arguments seriously but don’t have Mickey Mouse regulation.
Given that the debate has been set back by the self-interest of both the press and politicians, what role do you think there is for academics in this debate?
Well, of course Leveson did take a lot of evidence from academics and he actually asked to hear some political philosophers. I also persuaded a group of colleagues to give evidence and I’m aware of a lot of academics, in a number of disciplines, who are thinking about media freedom in a way that they were not a few years ago. I started writing on it in, I think, 2001, and it was a curiously dusty, old-fashioned topic at the time, as though all that was done and dusted – “we don’t need to think about it: of course we want a free press and it’s obvious what it is”. And it was only when I started looking more carefully at the classical arguments that I began to see that we in fact have some radically different arguments for press freedom jostling out there.
My perception has been that politicians are frightened. Why do we have a cross-party agreement and not a parliamentary vote? I think it’s like having three small children on a diving board where jumping into the deep water is quite frightening. So they hold hands. When I first heard the proposal to use the Privy Council I thought “that’s really odd”. I’ve come to think that doing so has a certain merit, in that it puts a supermajority in the way of subsequent parliamentary tampering with the system once it’s established. So while I wouldn’t generally think we should do things through the Privy Council, there may be a point here.
One could say that the phone hacking scandal created an opportunity for politicians to look at this issue. What do you think gave academics the opportunity around 2001 to start reconsidering press freedom? Was it considerations about the Internet?
I think a lot of people thought that press standards had been on the slide in the UK, and more on the slide than in some other countries. I think of serious journalists like John Lloyd and Andrew Marr writing about it, and you can see that they’re extremely worried at the increasing dominance in the media of scandal and innuendo; the loss of any distinction between news and comment had become much more commonplace. So I think there were routine worries that were growing for some years. What’s interesting is that those worries preceded the widespread use of the Internet. There were worries about the print media, and in this country about the contrast between the print media and the broadcast media where we do have forms of process regulation that have generally produced more reliable standards of journalism. Now these standards are never going to be 100% effective, but the trend in the print media had got a lot of serious journalists and other people worried.
There was also one other political event: in 2003 the Communications Act lowered the threshold for anti-monopoly provisions so it was possible to concentrate ownership more. Now, the Leveson Inquiry, and what’s gone on since, has not actually addressed this question. But I think it’s a very serious issue. We already have print media ownership that (1) is highly concentrated, (2) very largely consists of rich individual proprietors who in many cases are not citizens and not taxpayers, and I think this is probably an unhealthy situation. We may have thought that the domination of press barons 80 years ago was an unhealthy situation, but I worry about where we’ve got to now.
One of the by-products of the phone-hacking scandal and the Leveson Inquiry has been the crumbling of Murdoch’s media empire. But is there not something to be said for having substantial financial backing behind some news organisations in order to counter the huge resources of, for instance, the state and security agencies? This brings us to the NSA leaks that the Guardian has published. Is it not important to have news organisations that are able to effectively counterbalance state power?
Well that’s essentially the argument for the importance of investigative journalism. And I accept that argument. But I think it’s worth noting that very little of what the media do is genuine investigative journalism. So it’s not a very good argument for the media as they are. It’s quite common for people to claim that what they’re doing is investigative journalism, but when you look at the standards they are bringing to it, you become a bit doubtful. Nevertheless, there is a serious argument, and that’s why I would think that we do need a public interest defence for keeping your sources secret where it is genuine investigative journalism.
Let me go first to the general case on sources: basically good journalists, of course, declare their sources. It’s the way they make what they write credible. And so it is the default for good journalists to tell their readers “these are my sources, here is the evidence, here’s the photograph, here’s the quotation”. But there is the case where you would need, as an exception, to keep your sources hidden. And a very standard way of doing that would be not to publish your source or your evidence but for example to tell your editor, “I reckon this is a reliable source”, and you just have some limited trail that shows that you weren’t just inventing it. I first became interested in this when a journalist I met in Cambridge seven or eight years ago told me something that I happened to know to be false. So I asked her “would you like to tell me your source on that?” And she said, in the most po-faced way, “you wouldn’t want me to reveal my sources”. I thought, well either you have no source or someone’s been having you on. And it was a very trivial matter, but she hadn’t got an accurate source and was putting up this screen as an automatic reflex. So we do need to do something to protect genuine investigative journalism. But I would say that what it needs most is to regain its reputation – and no longer to be identifiable with intrusive tittle-tattle.
That’s rather separate from the issue of breaching confidentiality, be it for commercial, professional or security reasons. That’s a further matter, but I think we do need protection for investigative journalism.
A recent prominent example of investigative journalism is the Guardian’s publication of information about the NSA’s Prism surveillance programme. This has raised slightly different questions about the ethics of journalism and the public interest than those resulting from phone hacking. Do you think that, in addition to regulating journalistic process, there’s also an argument for, if not censoring, then having some kind of control over the content that’s published where it may not be in the public interest?
In here there are some really difficult matters, because as we were just saying, you don’t want the public interest defence to be a trump card that anyone can play, regardless of what they’re putting out there. I’ve noted that some criticisms of the publication of the Wikileaks material or the Edward Snowden leak, has been simply “who are they to judge that this is risk-free to third parties?” I think that that’s a pretty serious issue. If you publish other people’s confidential material it is not enough to assert that this is in the public interest. You have at the very least to ascertain whether you are endangering other people; or you’ve got to warn them; or both. So there can’t be a blanket assumption that if you happen to stumble across somebody else’s confidential material you’re doing a good thing by putting it into the public domain. There’s a volume question too: if you put scads of stuff into the public domain, most of it won’t be found, read, interpreted, or used; but some of it may enable some people to put two and two together and infer something that should probably not have been in the public domain. And I have a bit more of a sense of this in the case of the Wikileaks material, because much of it was not high-security stuff. To my mind it was extraordinary that the US government had a website to which I think three million people had legitimate access – not just Mr Manning. What I’ve read from it so far, such as reports from diplomats, sparked the thought that “ah, they’ve got quite a good grasp on this; they’re writing rather good prose, this is not dumb!” And of course, it was probably extremely embarrassing, particularly to the Saudi Government when it became public knowledge that they had been asking the US to bomb Iran – they were no doubt extremely cross – but on the whole I think my respect for US officials rather grew on reading the Wikileaks stuff.
Though it was a straightforward breach of security, if I were the US government I would not be making a martyr of Mr Manning. But I would prosecute him, because any employee in that situation has clearly undertaken obligations, so I don’t have any difficulty with that. But was it fundamentally in or against the public interest? Well, there may have been things that were enormously in the public interest in there, but I think it was more embarrassment. I don’t really know about Mr Snowden, and some people have said some quite dramatic things and other people less so. However, I think it’s clear now that leaks cannot be plugged retrospectively. That’s very different from traditional technologies, and it makes it very much harder for us to judge how the argument should now go. I wouldn’t argue for prior restraint, but I expect some people think that’s the only thing that could be effective if content that is leaked or just inadvertently communicated can be round the globe and in the headlines almost instantly. Now there are those who think that this is terrific because it embarrasses the powerful. But to my mind it shows a great lack of imagination to think that this is the only likely outcome.
Are you hinting at the use of information by terrorist organisations, for instance?
I think I’m very much with people who try to keep recipes for making ghastly weapons from being posted online. I think that it might reach lunatics, it might reach terrorists, it might reach the armed forces of countries that don’t have adequate control over their armed forces – it might lead to any number of things, from lone lunatics upwards – and there are probably pretty good reasons to try not to distribute that material wholly freely. And we see all the time instances where someone with really not much technical know-how has found out how to cook up something lethal.
So are there good arguments for prior censorship of content, aside from those of process that you focus on in the Leveson evidence?
I would suppose that yes, distributing instructions for making lethal cocktails is probably something that you want to keep a bit of a grip on. Nobody can keep a grip on it except by a combination of state and civil society organisations. But I think there’d be pretty widespread agreement on that – as there is pretty widespread agreement on child pornography.
You invoke something of an appeal there to broader civil society and the kind of opinions this generates – including those generated by political institutions. When you have a media organisation such as the Guardian threatening to bypass the laws of this jurisdiction in order to publish from the United States, for instance, do you think this is an important strategy for investigative journalism, or do you think it is tantamount to escaping from what you call our “collective geopolitical fate”?
It’s exactly the same thing as extra-territorial tax evasion, and I think that a world in which some people are confined within the bounds of a certain jurisdiction and are bound by its laws, pay its taxes, while other people put different aspects of their lives into different jurisdictions is a risky and divisive one. It produces a class of people who can have their money here, their holiday home there, and their children at school somewhere else, and they don’t carry the burdens of any society, although they may enjoy the benefits of several. I’m very interested in the development of extra-territoriality with respect to taxation. And I think a close parallel can arise when people publish in other jurisdictions in order to avoid prosecution – whether for defamation, for breach of privacy or of confidentiality or of security.
We have perhaps made a little progress on online publishing in this country since the episode where Lord McAlpine was falsely accused of paedophilia and when upon seeing a photograph of McAlpine the accuser said, “oh that’s not him”. It was very categorical, very clear, immediately. But although it had only happened hours before, there were lots of people who had already blogged and tweeted and sent this information elsewhere. I gather that, within this jurisdiction at least, his solicitors are going around requiring donations to charity in proportion to the size of the readership or followership – and that seems to me right: if you’ve published, you’ve published, and the laws of defamation apply to you regardless of medium. But of course that’s where extra-territorial publication is going to face you with exactly the problems we now have with non-doms and taxation.
So is there a need for some kind of international organisation to regulate the Internet?
We have devised a remedy for dealing with taxation in multiple jurisdictions by using tax treaties, for example, the US-UK tax treaties. So I think this is a model that actually does work, and has worked for a long time. It doesn’t work so well in jurisdictions that are simply not in the business of taxing, because they have other ways of amassing money for the state. I think the taxation issue is in some ways even more urgent than the informational issue, but there might be analogous partial remedies where states agree to prosecute breaches of confidence, privacy, and the like, although the publishing is not confined to any one jurisdiction.
But within the informational issues, I would take a rather different view of how the law might view anonymity and how it might view privacy. Anonymity is publishing something and ensuring others don’t know and cannot know who the source is. Now that seems to me a pretty bad thing to do. Of course there can be cases where it’s all right; if a company publishes its accounts, there’s no need for anyone to know the accountant’s name because they have the company’s address and it’s traceable. But there is a lot of untraceable material that readers cannot check or challenge. I did a TED talk this summer on trustworthiness and trust, and somebody else talking that day told a simple story about an episode in Dublin, of a family whose lives were torn apart because somebody who evidently knew a lot about them was putting the most scandalous rumours about them in emails to them – not even online, just in emails. And they, like most families, didn’t know how to find out who it was. It turned out to be their twelve-year-old son’s friend down the road. At the case conference the child was in tears and said, “I just did it because I could and I didn’t know it would lead to anything”. And it just tells you that when a child of twelve can do that and the ordinary person cannot see where it comes from, that is very alarming. So I think that we do have to have some way of making it easier for people to find out where a claim is coming from. Which of course you can do, unless people are very clever, through the service provider (although it took this family some time to find this out). But when people are very clever you can’t actually find out who it’s from. So anonymity and anonymous posting are the first things we should think about here. You’ve probably read the tragic story of this youngster in Fife who threw himself off the Forth Bridge. Cyber-bullying, though it does happen in situations where the perpetrator’s name is known, is typically an activity where perpetrators rely on anonymity.
There are arguments that the Internet has a democratic potential that print doesn’t have…
I think that involves a pretty trivialised conception of democracy. Democracy in the end is not merely advertising and counting noses. Democracy is also about understanding the arguments for and against policies. If you can’t engage in conversation with someone it’s not adding to democratic potential.
But one could say that the broadened access that the Internet provides to the means of producing content, gives a greater possibility for engagement and for countering misleading content than the print media. And this may be used to argue that less regulation is needed on the Internet. Is there nothing in that argument?
First of all, that’s very different from the argument that we should permit anonymous posting. You can bring in a bit of democratic potential when people can debate online and discuss a topic, but this assumes that the other parties are not wholly anonymous (even if they may in some contexts be using a pseudonym) and are traceable. Where this is the case people can be held to account for defamation, and that seems to me quite fundamental, because I’m sure you’ve seen the kind of comments people feel free to post when they think they’re anonymous – the sort of vicious nastiness that sometimes happens then. So that’s why I picked out anonymous posting as something that I think would have to be controlled.
Might one not fight anonymity with anonymity? Especially if we have at least some faith in the idea of reasoned debate overcoming all else.
This is not about reasoned debate, full stop. It really isn’t. If you’re into reasoned debate you don’t need and you don’t use anonymity. Citizens just have to have a soupçon of civic courage. And that means that when I speak as a citizen I speak in my voice and I listen, and people can come back and can say, “I don’t think that argument works” or “you have forgotten about” or I can say “I want to refine, rephrase,” whatever. That’s what debate is. Debate is interactive and consequently has elements of corrigibility. When you don’t know where the purported voice on the other side of the debate is coming from, even whether it is one voice, when you don’t know whether your remarks are being edited and fed in certain ways into some channels and not others, when you don’t know how what you say is being spread around – I think that is really likely to prove utterly destructive of democracy in the end. Also, you don’t know what interests are being represented in comments that you can’t source. Or who’s paying for what. These are very basic matters in considering what the media can contribute to democracy. My perception of it is that anonymity neat and pure is probably something that won’t be acceptable, and it certainly won’t contribute to democracy. So anonymity is probably the easy case.
Now the only serious argument for anonymity that I’ve heard was from Belle du Jour – I was on a panel with her at the Hay Festival – and she pointed out that she probably could not have written a blog about the subject she was writing about had she not been anonymous. That makes one think is that there may be acceptable uses of anonymity. But anonymity deprives the audience, small or large, of all protection and all possibility of response. So I can’t really build an argument for anonymity being generally acceptable.
I would have thought anonymity is something we will have to deal with. And there are various ways of doing it. One is where people are actually interested in debate and discussion and perfectly willing to do it in their own names. Or you could have a moderated discussion where people are to some extent protected – not of course by the state but by the service provider – which, if it degenerates to menace or defamation, will lead to identification and liability.
What about the related issue of filtering? Many people receive their news diet now through search engines. And Google, for instance, filters its search results through algorithms designed by computer engineers. This means that there’s no editor who curates news directly and who accepts responsibility for the content presented to users – not a problem of anonymity so much as one of attributing responsibility for decisions presented as purely technical. How does the use of algorithms in this way change our discussion of responsibility?
It’s a difficult one, isn’t it? And of course the bigger example, even bigger than Google, is the Chinese state building algorithms into the most popular computers so you will find that your news doesn’t cover certain things. I also believe Google isn’t using that motto quite so much now – “don’t be evil”…
In general, one of the things you’ve got to ask about these technologies is: what can they do to the weakest people, and what advantages do they give the strongest institutions? We’ve spent twenty years thinking romantically of the internet – in effect “oh what a lovely playground” – and I think we’re beginning to see now that it’s being colonised, it’s becoming an arena of power.
Well I suppose the deeper issue is that many organisations that are dominant online are using supposedly neutral means of curating and filtering content, behind which there is very little trace of decision-making involving moral deliberation. How can we possibly regulate that? Many of the issues that you bring up in your evidence to the Leveson Inquiry and your Reuters lecture are to do with the ethics of process. But when there’s ostensibly very little process in terms of ethical thinking involved, what kind of regulation is possible?
I think this is an enormous topic, and it’s not one that I can give answers to – partly I think I’m technically too ignorant – but it does seem to me that the identifiability of the service provider is pretty important, and that’s anonymity but at another level. The takedown notice is obviously a quick but ineffective way of reacting to the posting of incitement or defamation, or other things that we clearly think of as “speech wrongs”. But it’s very, very clunky to go after service providers to do this. The other sort of answer I’ve heard is “well, won’t the market sort it out, because their reputations will plunge”. Well, I’m not sure, I’m just not sure. Because, as you say, these algorithms are often invisible to end-users, so they are unaware of what is being filtered. Leveson was dealing predominantly with the standards, ethics, and culture of the print media because the broadcast media are in fact quite regulated in this country and publishing beyond the print media is, again, quite well regulated – publishing houses don’t often do disastrous things because the law can catch up with them. But the question for the Internet is “can the law catch up with them, or is it creating a privileged class” – and I suspect it is tending towards creating a privileged class.
And that privileged class would be a class of very technically able or knowledgeable individuals, would it?
I wonder, because it’s enabled by the people who can write the algorithms. But when you think about search engine algorithms, I’m not certain that the engineers really see themselves as serving any interest or policy. Sometimes of course it’s about getting certain sorts of sites to the top of the list, and it is an extension of an arms race of advertising. That doesn’t sound as though it’s seriously dangerous to the public at large but it could be, ultimately.
This may be very similar to the case of publishing in the print media, where some editors seem to have a genuine belief that the publication of information is, in itself, a good thing.
And I have been pretty critical of that view because I think that in the last decade people have been quite fetishistic about transparency. I can see good arguments for transparency in certain cases. For example I can see very good arguments for requiring people to declare their interests (and by the way not only people in public life and in business, but also those in the media and in charities). In that case there is a good case for transparency. But the way transparency has often been interpreted is that you’re doing something meritorious by shovelling stuff into the public domain. Most of what is shovelled into the public domain will not be of interest to, or even found by other people, except possibly some other institutions. But ultimately I think that transparency is simply a remedy for secrecy. It doesn’t contribute in itself to communication, and it doesn’t contribute to democracy. The present coalition government, when they started even if they weren’t quite transparency fetishists, were very much down that road. But I think it has become clearer across the last two or three years that transparency in and of itself is not a sovereign remedy for all sorts of things that go wrong. Nevertheless, you still hear people in public life say, “oh we must be more transparent”. Well, yes, but if you just mean we must gather all this information and post it somewhere, that is too little… So I think that the argument can’t stop with saying “this is transparent”. Of course it got embedded during the late 90s into certain bits of public life, for example the standards for better regulation, and the Nolan Principles [KR: the code of ethics for those in public office in the UK]. And now I listen to people referring to it and I think it’s claptrap – it just comes out as “more transparency” as if this were an omnipurpose remedy. The thing I would go for is – I’ve used the slogan and managed to get it into a few public documents – “intelligent openness”. Meaning that you’re open, but you try to meet standards that enable the other party to find, follow and assess what you say or write. That’s where assessability comes in. Mere openness is audience-indifferent.
Let me explain why I think you can’t make these kinds of decisions about public debate unless you’ve got a grip on the content. I can illustrate this best by talking about privacy. In Europe as you know we have a data protection approach to privacy, which I think is conceptually defective because it tries to impose extremely strong protection on any content that is personal information. But when you start wondering “what is personal information?”, you realise there is no clear criterion for demarcating it. When there is a breach of privacy it is very often done by an inference from information that people didn’t think was personal. Most breaches of privacy happen because people have access to a range of information and can make certain inferences. So how can anybody think you can protect people’s privacy by demarcating personal and non-personal information? Yet that’s the way our legislation has gone, and of course it leads people to be hyper-cautious, very understandably. But in other cases it leads people to think “that’s not private information” because on the surface it doesn’t say who it is.
As I mentioned, the present government were initially very keen on transparency, including transparency of research data. The first sign of change that I noticed was probably July 2012 when there was a cabinet office white paper on open data. It had become clear that with biomedical data, patient data, you have to have proper information governance. And insofar as I’m involved, which I am a bit, in various debates about data-governance, it’s quite clear that nobody thinks any longer that there will be a way in which you can anonymise or pseudonomise patient data, for example, and put it out there in the public domain for researchers – it’s too easy to identify persons. So privacy is a moving frontier. But conceptually there seems to have been quite a big shift on this issue in the last two or three years; there’s been a shift away from thinking you can have on the one hand complete transparency for this domain and on the other hand data protection for that domain, because inferential lines cross the boundaries between these domains at many points.
What do you think about the issue of data collection by GCHQ with regard to this question of privacy? Do you not think that arguments from the privacy standpoint are very important when it comes to protecting our data from the state, and also provide good arguments for anonymity?
They can be. Insofar as GCHQ and NSA collect communications data, not content, I’m not worried. Telephone companies do that for billing purposes. Insofar as they collect content, I might be more worried, but by the same token I would worry equally about Facebook, who collect content, and in particular a lot of personal content. I heard a Canadian lawyer talk about the fact that the Canadian data protection commissioners hadn’t a clue about how younger people were using the Internet so organised some focus groups with youngsters. One girl said: “look, you don’t understand – I go online in order to be private”. Now that is glorious, isn’t it? And I think I understand what she means: If I’m sitting and talking on my mobile, my mum and dad can overhear; if I’m online, nobody can hear me, it’s private. But of course it is a complete illusion. And by the time people are undergraduates, at least the more savvy realise that at their first job interview the interviewers will have looked at their Facebook page. But a lot of other people don’t. And I think that whatever legislation we end up with has to protect those people too.
Some people will say that in the case of Facebook we consent to the data being there, but in the case of the various security forces we do not. I think that line of argument is thin, because the standards for consent in commercial contexts are very minimal – you tick and you click and it counts as consent. But the standards for consent in democratic societies are more robust – of course imperfect – but continuing and repetitive and with options for dissent to change things. I think that as things are, sensible people assume that there are a lot of organisations with access to information about them and take what care they can. They do not assume that the greatest risks come from their own state’s security systems. I often console myself by remembering that nearly all of what nearly everyone does is not of great interest to anybody else…
I constantly hear people saying that the solution is cultural – that we must educate people better on how to use the Internet – and of course I accept that it would be a good thing. But culture doesn’t operate in a legal vacuum and the forces of the powers that be, whether it be Google or GCHQ – and much more ordinary businesses operating online – are so powerful compared to the rest of us that I think we’re probably going to have to have a legal framework. It’ll be horribly contested because there are all sorts of romantics out there who think cyberspace is a wide-open frontier of freedom for which we should all die. I don’t think that will survive. I think what turned me to that view was reading a certain number of the cyber-bullying cases, and I don’t think people will in the long run stand for it being feasible to bully youngsters – or vulnerable people who are older – or others who are not savvy. Blackmail, including online blackmail is quite easy, and of course that in a sense is one of the things that gives politicians pause. It’s not that they fear that their party would lose an election if they speak out, but that they fear the personal attacks and rumour spreading to which they and their families might be subjected.
Is it possible to regulate so widely as to control such attacks?
I think we start by making it clear to people that you are not in a law-free zone when you defame people online. It will become a bit different as people with a following realise that putting content out into the public domain without thought can be a dangerous pastime if you get it wrong, because what you’re publishing can actually be brought under the law for defamation.
What about the resources required for this?
Well the law of defamation – which of course has just been changed and I hope it’s better because it was just too expensive for anybody but the rich to use it – basically works not by bringing lots of cases but by people being at least as cautious about defamation as they might be about assault or petty theft. I’m not saying you will always get public compliance or that we need lots of apparatus, but people will come to know that you can’t do this without making yourself liable. Deterrence is the main way that the law works and then the cultural remedies very often build on there being a deterrent. Nick Ross’s new book, Crime: How To Solve It, and Why So Much of What We’re Told Is Wrong (Biteback Publishing, 2013), is very good; he’s good about evidence, statistics, science and so on. And he starts out from the fascinating conundrum that we have had the most amazing drop in crime rates in this country and indeed in many western countries over the last decade. Meanwhile we have media who push moral panic about crime all the time. Why this discrepancy? He has a lot of interesting things to say about what has driven the decline in crime and some of it is just technological – which gives one perhaps some hope.