Carrier indemnity must stay

Indigo Jo Blogs - 23 January, 2021 - 20:23
A white woman standing in a crowd next to a man in khaki clothes holding an American flag and a sign saying "Trump Stolen 2020".

BBC Click — What’s Next for Big Tech? (Available until January 2022)

In the most recent episode of the BBC tech series Click, it was revealed that the new US president Joe Biden is seeking to repeal the law that indemnifies “big tech” from what people who use their services say. In the UK, where libel laws passed in the 19th century aimed at protecting the reputations of ‘gentlemen’, i.e. the rich and powerful, favour the litigant, web hosts are responsible for the content hosted on their servers and can be sued if someone takes offence. In practice, most will back down at the receipt of a lawyer’s letter and shut the site down until the matter is removed, or permanently. The same cannot happen in the USA; only the person who writes the material or takes an active decision to publish it is responsible — a web host is likened to a telephone service rather than a newspaper. Last year, according to the programme, Biden told the New York Times that they could not publish a known falsehood and expect not to be sued, but Mark Zuckerberg, the owner of Facebook, could, and that this law, known as Section 230, should be “revoked immediately”.

Both Biden and the BBC seem to be making the mistake that this is all about “big tech”. In fact, although social media is mostly in the hands of a handful of large companies, S230 benefits all web hosting services and their users. This blog is hosted in the USA; a few years ago, someone from my old school demanded I remove an entire entry, claiming it was libellous to him; he refused to identify himself or the relevant section. When I refused, he approached my web host and demanded they delete it. They also refused, because they are not responsible for what I said as a result of section 230 and told him the entry was covered by the American First Amendment. He then disappeared and I never heard from him again. If I had remained with my original British host, it would only have taken a letter from his solicitor to have my entire blog removed until I agreed to remove the entry, which exposed the culture of abuse and violence at the special school I attended in the early 1990s. Anyone can use this mechanism to silence a blogger whose material is hosted in the UK, whether the material is about child abuse, medical malpractice, corporate or political corruption or anything else.

The comparison between ‘Zuckerberg’ and the NYT is an entirely false one. The New York Times is a newspaper and what appears in it is the result of an editorial decision. Facebook’s content is written by its users and Mark Zuckerberg has nothing to do with it when it first appears. As it happens, Facebook does have means of screening out content which is inappropriate or harmful, as do most social media platforms, but if it was responsible for everything people said, for ensuring no libellous material appeared, then it could not function as a social media service. It has been widely noted that in some countries Facebook has become a cesspit of rumour, accusation and fake news and this has been a source of communal violence (e.g. in Burma, Sri Lanka and elsewhere in Asia) and if they persist in allowing this sort of use of their services, they should be held accountable, but a distinction must be made between harmful misinformation or incitement to violence and what causes mere offence where the responsibility should lie with the author, not the hosting company.

Calling the companies affected “big tech” implies that this just about a small number of multi-billion-dollar technology giants. It’s not just about them nor is it just about violent sedition or misinformation about vital matters of health such as vaccines and Covid. It’s about everyone’s ability to speak out about things that affect their lives. Of course, even with section 230 an author can still be sued and still is responsible if they defame someone, but they cannot be silenced by mere threats of legal action which could be idle and baseless just because the web host is also liable and has no interest in fighting the case. Section 230 facilitates free speech, both in the USA and abroad. It will have a chilling effect on all of us if it is repealed.

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Tearing down statues of oppressors is not censorship

Indigo Jo Blogs - 18 January, 2021 - 00:25
A bronze statue of Edward Colston atop a stone monument with four figures on a lower plinth.Statue of Edward Colston, Bristol (erected 1895, toppled 2020)

Murderers are not a section of society that is held in great respect in our society, much as in others. Until the 1960s if convicted they were hanged; since then they have been subject to life imprisonment, and if released, they will be on lifetime supervision. Those who kill multiple victims or who sexually abuse or otherwise torture their victims first are often given whole-life sentences or in any case are never released. Their name will live on in infamy for a good few generations. There is one exception, however: people who were responsible for sometimes hundreds, thousands or more deaths in the service of their country, or whose victims were foreign and deemed “less than”, and who splashed money around their home city, will live on in statues and places named after them: concert halls, hospital wards and wings, railway stations, colleges, streets, squares.

Last year in Bristol, a statue of the slave trader and Tory MP Edward Colston (1636-1721) was torn down and toppled into a harbour by a group of protesters inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. A concert hall that had been named after him (on the site of a school he founded, which has since relocated to the suburbs) was renamed Bristol Beacon. A society which had existed to commemorate Colston for 275 years also disbanded last year. Colston had traded wine, textiles and fish but was also a member of the Royal African Company, which had a monopoly on English trading along the west coast of Africa, from 1680 to 1692 and served as deputy governor from 1689 to 1690 (the king or queen was governor) and during his involvement, 84,000 Africans were transported to the Americas of whom well over a fifth died along the way. The appalling treatment of slaves while being transported to the Americas is well-known: being walked for hundreds of miles in chains, being kept chained together naked in the hold, being whipped, being thrown overboard if sick. (Another detail that might interest a Labour council is that the crews of these ships also had a 20% mortality rate.)

Yesterday in the Daily Telegraph, Robert Jenrick, the Secretary of State for housing, communities and local government, announced that the government would be bringing forward legislation to make it more difficult to remove statues and other memorials such as the Colston statue (the article is paywalled but there is a Twitter thread summarising the article by the paper’s assistant editor here). He claims that the memorials were often erected by public subscription and its removals are “an attempt to impose a single, often negative, narrative which not so much recalls our national story as seeks to erase part of it”. He attributes this to both “the flash mob” and “the decree of a ‘cultural committee’ of town hall militants or woke worthies”. He accuses the Labour Party, including the present leadership, of threatening to remove tombs of those it calls “offenders” and of changing Birmingham street names from those of historical figures to names like “Diversity Grove” and “Humanity Close”. (This is a modern-day Winterval myth; the streets in Perry Barr given these names were new, part of a redevelopment of a former university campus.) Councillors are elected, so their decisions are quite distinct from self-appointed mob violence, although if such things cannot be carried out by a local democratic process, the danger of such monuments being sabotaged is that much greater.

Jenrick then claims that “at the heart of liberal democracies is a belief that history should be studied, not censored”. Memorials are not ‘history’ but are a statement about history. We still know who Colston was and what he did without having a statue of him. A statue of someone or a street or building named after them is a testament to their worthiness and greatness. If a statue towers over people as they go to work, if people have to travel every day through a railway station named after a particular person, if a town hall is named after them, it tells people that this person has official approval or is celebrated. It may not hurt if the people oppressed by that person were not your ancestors, but if they were, it might well do. If the person celebrated by a street name led the army that repressed your people’s movement for self-determination so that they could profit from your people’s labour and country’s produce, or enslaved your ancestors, it might well rankle. When people first arrive in a country, of course they do not have the right to tear down monuments or insist streets or buildings be renamed to suit them, but when they have been with us for two or three generations, they have a right not to be offended on a daily basis by monuments to their forefathers’ enslavers or oppressors.

Jenrick proposes that a “proper process will be required” and that removals of “historic monuments” be performed only after consultation with the local community and if councils fail to do this, the Secretary of State will use his powers to “reflect the Government’s planning policies”. I am sure he is well aware that councils of all parties are notorious for conducting ‘consultations’ that hardly anyone hears about and the results of which are interpreted selectively, so if he seeks to remedy this so that unnecessary 20mph speed limits can no longer be inflicted on whole boroughs on the basis of no public demand whatsoever, that will be very welcome. However, it could be that some people are not bothered by a statue of a politician or financial benefactor from decades or centuries past but a substantial minority, descended from people they oppressed, is offended by being reminded of their ‘greatness’ every day. The greater good is not always the same as what the majority want.

Myra Hindley, one of the two notorious “Moors murderers” of 1960s Manchester, spent most of her life imprisoned for the five murders she and Ian Brady committed when she was in her twenties. Later in her life, she sent a cheque for a small amount to a children’s charity; the cheque was returned. They did not want her money, even though it had nothing to do with her crimes; it may have been earned while in prison or had been given her by relatives or supporters. If we believe that the lives of African people are worth as much as those of the children of Manchester, we really should not be protecting monuments to a man closely involved in a trade that treated human beings like mere inanimate property, tossing them into the ocean or sinking whole ships full of them for money. At a certain point, someone’s largesse becomes less significant than their crimes and the suffering and death they cause.

Image source: William Avery, via Wikimedia. Released under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (BY-SA) 3.0 licence.

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