Who decides what is ‘consent’?

Indigo Jo Blogs - 4 April, 2019 - 23:20
Picture of Sir Anthony Hayden, a middle-aged white man, clean shaven, wearing a bright red robe with white shoulders, with a judge's horse-hair wig covering the top and sides of his head. Behind him are shelves of leather-bound hardback books.Mr Justice Sir Anthony Hayden, who made the offending remarks on Monday.

This Monday a judge in the Court of Protection, a British court that decides the affairs of disabled people who are not able to do so for themselves, made a remark which caused a lot of outrage while hearing a case about a married woman who had lifelong learning difficulties (according to press reports) but whose mental health had worsened in recent years to the extent that social workers were claiming she no longer had the capacity to consent to sex with her husband or anyone else. The judge, Sir Anthony Hayden (right), remarked, “I cannot think of any more obviously fundamental human right than the right of a man to have sex with his wife - and the right of the state to monitor that - I think he is entitled to have it properly argued”, which a lot of people have taken to imply that the man has the right to force his wife to have sex with him, which, however clumsily he expressed it, is not what I believed he was trying to say at all. The couple cannot be named, but as they have been married for 20 years, it can be reasonably assumed that they are both above 40 and may well be older than that. (More: Shoaib Khan @ HuffPost.)

That a man has no right to force his wife to have sex with him has been established in law since 1991. The issue here is whether the woman has the capacity to decide whether to have sex or not. Social workers believe she does not; this claim is clearly disputed, as the man had offered to give an undertaking that he would not have sex with her but the judge refused this offer and demanded to hear evidence from all sides. The Court of Protection has sometimes issued rulings that a person with impaired mental capacity be prevented from having sex because they have no understanding of either consent or the potential consequences of having sex; in one case, a woman with learning disabilities and atypical autism was ordered to be supervised at all times as otherwise, she would engage in risky sexual behaviour with anyone who asked; in another, an Asian couple including a woman with significant cognitive impairment was required to live apart because the wife had no understanding of the matter of consent (although it was understood that she found sex ‘comfortable’) and could not be repatriated to her home country.

However, the right to family life is a fundamental human right — it’s the famous Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which has been important in securing the rights of disabled people to a life outside the walls of institutions — and for couples, a sex life is part of family life and unless there are very strong reasons, that should be free of outside interference; the right of adults with both physical and mild intellectual disabilities to live as couples and have a sex life has been a hard-fought battle to achieve. (The reports do not say, but it is quite likely that the man has a learning disability as well.) While it is true that marriage does not circumvent consent or make the woman her husband’s property, a couple that have been married 20 years might be able to gauge such things as each other’s desire for or willingness to have sex better than a couple which have only just met, and they might be able to ‘read’ each other better than professionals who do not know them very well do. It is also possible that the woman has periods of lucidity where she has better understanding of what is going on than she does at other times, and these may not be the times when professionals are in the house.

The remarks have attracted widespread condemnation, with some suggesting that they take judicial understandings of gender relations back to the Dark Ages and portray marriage as a “season ticket” offering unlimited sex, regardless of how the woman feels. However, what the judge was doing was putting a brake on efforts by a group of professionals to dictate how a couple live their lives — perhaps whether they should even be allowed to live together or whether the wife should be in a ‘home’ — rather than, as I have seen people do on social media, take the professionals’ opinion at face value when it might be based on an underestimation of her capacity or an assumption that the man will abuse his wife if left alone with her. We do not know the age or exact condition of the woman; that may be revealed when the final judgment is published in a few months’ time, if it is (not all CoP judgments are published, as the court sits in private), but however anachronistic the statement he made sounded, the principles are sound and the defence of the right to family life is to be supported, not condemned.

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Christchurch shooting accused faces victims' relatives in court on 50 murder charges

The Guardian World news: Islam - 4 April, 2019 - 22:58

Australian silent as he appeared via video link in Christchurch’s packed high court, where he faces a total of 89 charges

The man accused of murdering 50 people in the New Zealand mosque attacks has appeared via video link in the Christchurch high court, in his second formal court appearance since the shootings.

Australian Brenton Tarrant faces a total of 89 charges in the high court, 50 murder charges and 39 attempted murder charges – the most ever laid in New Zealand history.

Related: Australian agencies had 'no reason to restrict travel' of Christchurch accused, MPs told

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The Guardian view on Brunei and stoning: don’t leave it to celebrities to act | Editorial

The Guardian World news: Islam - 4 April, 2019 - 18:25
Brunei’s shocking new penal code must be challenged – through deeds as well as words. Britain’s responsibilities are clear

Brunei’s introduction of new laws allowing stoning for adultery and sex between men has sparked international outrage. Elton John and George Clooney’s calls for a boycott of luxury hotels owned by the tiny south-east Asian kingdom have grabbed the spotlight. The United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet has condemned the “cruel and inhuman” measures, as have the EU, Australia and others.

The punishment is only one of many horrifying changes in a penal code which also covers apostasy, amputation as a punishment for theft and flogging for abortions. Lesbian sex is punishable by 40 strokes of the cane as well as jail. In some cases children who have reached puberty are subject to the same penalties as adults; younger ones may be flogged. The sharia code was first introduced in 2013, and was supposed to be enacted gradually; following an outcry the government did not bring forward its harshest elements until now. Many suspect that the impact of declining oil revenues on public spending has left Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, one of the longest-ruling absolute monarchs, keen to bolster support among conservative elements.

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Claire Greaves inquest

Indigo Jo Blogs - 3 April, 2019 - 19:13
A still from a BBC TV programme showing four adults (two male, two female) sitting on a semicircular red sofa round a glass-topped table. Claire Greaves is second from left.Claire Greaves on BBC TV

Yesterday the inquest into the death of Claire Greaves, who took her own life on a Cygnet-run eating disorder in Coventry in February 2018, concluded and recorded an open verdict (i.e. it was not a verdict of suicide) though it ruled that failings in her care contributed to her death, specifically:

  • Long-term segregation and seclusion contributed to a decline in Claire’s mental state
  • Staffing levels “probably caused or contributed” to her death
  • There was a failure to increase observations despite Claire making numerous self-harm attempts in the days prior to her death
  • Had there been “sufficient staff” then Claire’s care plan could have been followed and the risk period of 17:00 to 18:00 “would have been covered”
  • There was a failure in allowing Claire to be alone in her room prior to her death, contrary to her care plan.

(Adam Wagner, who represented the family, has stated on Twitter that this is not the full list of contributory failings identified by the jury.)

I’ve written about Claire Greaves before; I followed her on Twitter when she was a few months into her final period of being detained (sectioned) under the Mental Health Act from late 2015 onwards. At that time she was in a local mental health unit and hoping to be admitted to the Retreat, a specialist eating disorder unit, but was refused, and instead transferred to the Ty Catrin secure unit, operated by the Priory Group, in south Wales. The standard of care there was appalling, as she described in a blog entry after she was transferred to a local general hospital when her anorexia had nearly killed her. This was not the same unit in which she died, but the trauma of being subjected to this regime should have influenced her care at Cygnet in Coventry. The petty indignities she described are still standard practice in many secure mental health units countrywide, and are indiscriminate: the denial of privacy while using the toilet and bathroom, the withholding of sanitary products to menstruating women and girls (or their being expected to ask for them individually), and the denial of the use not only of computers and the Internet but even pens and pencils, ostensibly for the prevention of self-harm, regardless of their individual needs, are common practice. With all the hand-wringing about deaths in these places, the question of whether these regimes are abusive in and of themselves does not seem to have been asked.

A picture of Claire Greaves, a young white woman wearing a loose but short grey patterned dress, doing a jigsaw puzzle based on an "1980s shopping basket" theme.

Cygnet claim they have learned lessons from Claire’s death, that they are very sorry and all that. But it’s not good enough. Hers was not the first death from self-harm of a young woman in such a unit, and no doubt the ‘learning’ will be about how to prevent self-harm (by removing everything that could possibly be used for it, thereby further denuding the environment the patients lives in) rather than reducing the motivation for it by making the experience of being in such a place less miserable. There must be pressure put on the management of mental health units not to indiscriminately subject people to restriction and invasive supervision when it is not appropriate. If someone is in a secure unit for lack of the right kind of inpatient care, for example, they should not be refused use of the Internet for months or years just because there are forensic patients (those sent by the courts on hospital orders after committing crimes such as manslaughter) in the same unit — and if there aren’t, that is even less justifiable. Bathroom and toilet supervision should be imposed strictly on an individual, temporary basis, not imposed on everyone or by default. Maintaining dignity should be of paramount concern. How do you persuade a woman with anorexia nervosa to put on weight when she knows it will cause her periods to restart, when she has previously been locked in a room and left to bleed over herself?

Operators of these units should be facing stiff financial sanctions not only when an inpatient dies and neglect or abuse has been a contributing factor but also when an inspection finds that such practices are ongoing (and they should speak to patients, away from supervision, and their parents or relatives). In the case of deaths, chain operators which are repeat offenders should be liable to lose their licence to run healthcare facilities at all, not just face the closure of single units whose patients then have to be decanted elsewhere, possibly to other units in the same chain; the running should be taken over by the NHS or a better-rated provider. There must be legislation to prevent people being subjected to needless indignity in mental health inpatient settings but also to ensure that enough appropriate inpatient places are available so that people are not transferred to secure units simply because they need long-term care that an acute mental health ward or assessment and treatment unit (ATU) cannot provide, and even more so when the secure unit does not specialise in the care and treatment they do need.

And if the stiff sanctions mean that fewer of these companies are willing to set up new units (when not actually needed; they are often built speculatively), then that is all for the good. Companies profiting from abuse, indignity and death have no place in a modern healthcare system or in a civilised society, for that matter.

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Abhishek Majumdar: the playwright fighting death threats with ice cream

The Guardian World news: Islam - 2 April, 2019 - 15:38

His plays get banned and shadowy figures follow him in the street. But Abhishek Majumdar will not be silenced. As his drama about riots in Tibet is finally staged, we meet the fearless writer

Abhishek Majumdar writes plays that rattle people. His trilogy on the Kashmir crisis – one of which, The Djinns of Eidgah, was staged at London’s Royal Court in 2013 – sparked much sound and fury. So did Salvation House, three years later, in which he wrote damningly about the ancient roots of Hindutva, rightwing nationalism in India.

Majumdar has been hauled into police stations over the years and followed by shadowy figures he suspects to be government officials. Just a few weeks ago, a staging of The Djinns of Eidgah was halted by the authorities in Jaipur. He believes his phone to be tapped and his emails monitored.

So many Kashmir boys lost their lives because they had a gun. A gun changes a person

I’m under surveillance in Delhi. If I send an email to someone in Tibet today, it’ll reach them the day after tomorrow

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Jacinda Ardern’s grief should not eclipse that of Muslims | Mariam Khan

The Guardian World news: Islam - 2 April, 2019 - 07:00
The New Zealand prime minister’s response to the Christchurch killings is to be admired, but the focus must be on the Muslim communities affected

Since the Christchurch terror attack, much of the focus has been not on the mourning of New Zealand’s Muslim community, but on white people. This has been repeated across the west, and in parts of the Middle East. Jacinda Ardern’s face was projected on to the outside of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai days after the attack.

The prime minister’s response to the shooting has indeed been exemplary but the reaction to it has left little space for the victims, or the wider Muslim community in New Zealand or around the world. While many of us are still coming to terms with the events that happened in Christchurch, I have seen more pictures of Ardern’s grief and mourning than of the Muslim community in New Zealand, the victims or those who acted bravely on the day to save lives and fight against the terrorist.

I'm worried that next time there is a massacre of a Muslim community, for anyone to care it will take another Ardern

Related: Why we need to talk about the media’s role in far-right hate | Owen Jones

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And he wasn’t even Muslim

Indigo Jo Blogs - 1 April, 2019 - 22:15
A white woman wearing a Black Nike hoodie stands at a window holding her mobile phone to her ear; she has an angry expression on her face.

Last month a film-making group called “Error in Terror”, founded by a group of “highly-skilled film-makers” after the Westminster and Borough Market terrorist attacks in London to “create content which aims to tackle all forms of hatred, extremism and terrorism”, released a five-minute film on YouTube called “The Martyrs”, in which a woman calls in to a London talk radio show (clearly modelled on LBC) calling on people to “take action” and “make ourselves martyrs” despite the host’s attempt to talk reason to her, inspiring three different white men to attack Asian people (presumed to be Muslim) that they meet in the street or in a shop. Tell MAMA criticised it on Twitter, claiming that while they know of women who were frightened to walk the streets and some who have been physically attacked, “any film that highlights constant aggression towards Muslims will only fuel that fear & could give rise to copycat incidents on Muslim communities”. They also suggest that “some of those watching this film will leave angry, fearful and wanting to defend themselves”. I can see a host of problems with this film, although if there is indeed “constant aggression” towards Muslims, I see no reason not to highlight it.

The EIT website shows that the authors have a rather shaky grasp of history. They give four historic examples of terrorism; one of them is labelled “IRA — TROUBLES”, the cause for which is given as “division between Protestants and Catholics”. No; the reason was the oppression of the Catholic minority by the Protestant majority during the first Stormont era, the violent repression of civil rights protests in the late 1960s, followed by the British response of sending in troops who behaved towards the same Catholic population (who, unlike the Protestants, were native to Ireland) like an army of occupation. This could only have come from a very ignorant mainland British standpoint. The IRA was not the Troubles; they were not the only terrorists in or associated with Northern Ireland.

The film opens with overhead shots of buildings in the City of London, over which a presenter on “London’s Finest Conversation” announces that he is going to talk about “something extremely controversial” before introducing “Jenny” and saying “over to you”. Jenny is standing in the street with her mobile phone and shouts that “it’s the right thing to do”, that “British people” should bear arms, that there are “too many people here who are here for the wrong reasons”, who “don’t want to integrate”, that “it’s not safe, there are too many children that are at too much risk”. An Asian man stands looking in his mirror and tucks the cross and chain round his neck into his shirt. While she is ranting, two young white men in a car nod and say she is right, while a man wanders round in a convenience store drinking alcohol from a bottle, nodding at what the woman is saying (one presumes it is playing on the shop’s radio) as the Asian man walks in; he threatens the man as he tries to pay for his purchases at the same time. As the woman continues her rant, the same man walks to a car in which a Muslim woman wearing a hijab is sitting, tells her “what you wearing that for? It doesn’t belong here”, then rips the scarf off her; the woman then walks over to a car where another Muslim woman is sitting with her child and throws a liquid in her face. One of the two men in the car, challenged by the other, takes a knife and attacks the Asian man from the shop, stabbing him. An Asian man challenged the man harassing the woman in the car, saying “what do you think you’re doing?”, and punches him in the face and knocks him to the ground; the woman gets out of the car and pleads with him to stop, but he attacks her as well. We see a scan of her unborn baby on the floor, while the Asian man who was stabbed lies bleeding, his cross on display.

Two white men sitting in a car; one of them is looking towards the other (he is daring the other to "do something").

My first complaint about this film is that it provides no context to the woman’s rantings. We do not know why she is angry; the host does not ask and she does not say. Has she had a run-in with an Asian or Muslim person some time that day, or just been angered by something she has read in the paper? We do not know. But we do know that the Far Right do pose as “ordinary Joes” in order to insert their views into the mass media, and a woman (or a man) calling a radio phone-in with inflammatory rhetoric could be one of those people. Sometimes they manage to pull the wool over the eyes of people in the mainstream or intellectual media; I came across an article in 2008 by Brendan O’Neill in the New Statesman, who met a woman called Charlotte Lewis whom he described as a ‘ditzy’, unemployed woman with “a chip on her shoulder” from Croydon and who said she found it “distressing” to be the “only white woman on the bus”. In fact, Lewis was a BNP activist who had stood in council elections in a borough (Sutton) where she did not live, which is illegal. So, rather than showing her standing in the streets shouting into her phone, it might have been more apt to show her surrounded by her EDL/DFLA chums, or at least, in a room with some of their emblems or propaganda on the wall.

Second, it employs a trope which is a pet hate of mine: the “he wasn’t even a Muslim” trope. Despite his appearance, he wore a cross on a chain which only a Christian would do (Muslims do not believe in the crucifixion of Jesus, peace be upon him, and never use the cross as a symbol). Unbeknown to the racist attackers, they had attacked an Asian Christian when they thought they were attacking a Muslim. The truth about the man’s religion is portrayed as adding to the tragedy; the message is “don’t stab someone who looks Muslim because they might not be”, not “don’t stab someone” which rather undermines the group’s message that political violence never solved anything.

The film fails because it portrays racism and racist violence as the result of mere anger, of people being “fed up”; it does not name or even acknowledge the existence of any ideology behind that anger. Its only portrayal of the media consists of the talk-show host trying to reason with the woman. The white racists all appear ‘common’, mindless thugs; one of them is a drunk, and none of them wears a suit or shows any sign of being a political operative. Given that it has become fashionable to portray Muslim terrorism as being the product of ideology rather than anger, and doing the opposite leads to being branded an apologist for terrorism, it is rather hypocritical and unfair to portray white racist violence as being the result of exasperation and anger. There is a long history of racist attitudes being whipped up in the mainstream print and broadcast media and stoked by politicians, and this film did not even begin to acknowledge that.

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Psychologist to be investigated over opposition to LGBT lessons

The Guardian World news: Islam - 31 March, 2019 - 08:00
Campaigner’s views on family life may not be ‘compatible with professional standards and could impair her fitness to practise’

A psychologist who has played a key role in opposing the introduction of relationship and sex education lessons in schools is being investigated by her profession’s governing body over her fitness to practise.

Dr Kate Godfrey-Faussett, who has extensive experience working with young children and families, is a leading figure in Stop RSE, a campaign against relationship and sex education (RSE) lessons in schools.

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Jon Snow should not have apologised

Indigo Jo Blogs - 30 March, 2019 - 22:56
Two white men, both wearing white masks with the red St George's cross on it, with "NO EU" around the forehead. One of them is drinking from a can of Stella Artois beer. (Stella Artois is Belgian.)Two men at one of Friday’s “Brexit day” rallies.

There is a slogan used by racists throughout recent history: “nothing wrong with being white” (or some variation on that theme). Any celebration of Black or Asian culture is presented as a slur on white culture, and any suggestions that a movement or, say, workplace is “too white” is presented as meaning that there is something wrong with white people, rather than that it should be diverse given the local population. The Channel 4 reporter Jon Snow, covering the pro-Brexit demonstrations that took place in London yesterday (Friday) to mark the day that Britain was originally supposed to have left the European Union, said that he had “never seen so many white people in one place”; the unscripted remark was made when he was reporting from outside the Houses of Parliament. This was immediately leapt on by right-wing, pro-Brexit characters in the media such as the LBC presenter Julia Hartley-Brewer, who called the remarks “unbelievably shocking for a national broadcaster” and offered pictures of other events, such as a People’s Vote march and the Glastonbury festival, which also consisted of a sea of white faces. (More: Micha Frazer-Carrol @ Gal-dem.)

Of course, Jon Snow was not saying that being white was bad or that white people are bad. He was saying that the movement that was demonstrating was suspiciously unpopular with ethnic minority voters in a city that was very diverse, and indeed barely a mile from areas south of the river in particular where there are large non-white populations. Besides the rally being addressed by Tommy Robinson, a noted rabble-rouser and professional violent criminal who has made a name for himself stirring up hatred against Muslims, there were “Generation Identity” flags in the crowd and it was also the end point of the “march for Brexit”; the pro-Brexit campaign was marked by scaremongering about immigration, particularly Muslim immigration (such as the untrue “Turkey is joining the EU” poster), and UKIP while under Nigel Farage’s leadership was more of an anti-immigration party than an anti-EU party. Why would anyone of Muslim or immigrant background attend a rally like that? There were definite violent overtones; at one of the marches there were effigies hanged from a bridge over the Thames and specifically, effigies of Theresa May and Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, dragged around by their necks. Britain’s Black and Asian populations know that these sorts of demonstrations are liable to turn violent, and racist.

Jon Snow should not have apologised. Those of us who were not looking to find fault knew what he meant. There were indeed Black and Asian people who voted to leave the EU; why were they conspicuous by their absence on Friday? By apologising he plays to a racist mentality and honours a dishonest, bigoted complaint which does not deserve it.

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Hard-hitting film on Islamophobic attacks ‘promotes fear’

The Guardian World news: Islam - 30 March, 2019 - 14:00
Tell Mama and Muslim groups says scenes of hate crimes in short film The Martyrs are ‘sensationalist’

Muslim groups have demanded the withdrawal of a hard-hitting short film made to help tackle Islamophobic hate crimes, protesting that it promotes violence and fear.

The Martyrs, a four-minute film shot on location in west London in the wake of the Christchurch shootings, graphically dramatises three real-life Islamophobic crimes: a stabbing, an acid attack and the kicking in the stomach of a pregnant woman, leading to the death of her unborn twins. It was made by Rizwan Wadan, a camera technician who has worked on high-profile dramas such as The Favourite, Star Wars and Luther. He enlisted the help of leading cinematographers, camera operators, producers, stunt artists and film companies.

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Lady Warsi says she fears Michael Gove becoming PM

The Guardian World news: Islam - 29 March, 2019 - 12:51

Former party chair says senior Tories are concerned about minister’s views on Muslims

The Conservative peer Sayeeda Warsi has said she is fearful of the idea of Michael Gove becoming prime minister, saying she and other senior members of the party are concerned about his views on British Muslims.

The former Tory chair, who is Muslim, said any party that elected Gove as a leader “has got major problems”.

Related: At least 10 cabinet ministers considering prime ministerial bids

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Not the good old days

Indigo Jo Blogs - 28 March, 2019 - 23:14
A black desktop computer consisting of a keyboard, a low-profile system unit and a colour monitor on which several menus, a file manager window and a dock of icons down the right-hand side of the screen can be seen.The NeXTStation, the computer developed by Steve Jobs’s company on which the first web browser was written. Its operating system is now known as macOS.

In today’s Guardian, there is a feature on people’s experiences from the early years of the public Internet, in the mid 1990s to the very early 2000s; the feature consists of user-submitted stories edited by two journalists who describe the early Internet as a “friendlier place” than today’s net. The stories include couples meeting through an old-fashioned Listserv mailing list, people competing to trick people with fake photos (and ending up on Snopes being a badge of honour), a friendship developing when someone added to their chat friends list someone they thought was their housemate but was in fact on the other side of the world, and keeping up with friends though a fan forum for a band none of you like much. The World Wide Web (the aspect of the Internet that consists of the hyperlinked pages with just-about human-readable locations, as opposed to the back-end features, email and file transfer facilities that also use the Internet) is 30 years old this month and there has been a moral panic about “what sort of place the Internet has become”. I can’t agree that the early public Internet was a vastly friendlier place than today’s.

I first got online at college in 1995. That was how most people first got exposed to the Internet back then; very few people had home Internet and it was all dial-up; broadband did not exist then. It was certainly more primitive; web browsers were in their infancy and most people used Netscape, the forerunner of today’s Firefox browser, to browse. Web pages were a lot simpler; monitor resolutions were a lot smaller (often 800x600 or even smaller) and font sizes were larger compared to today’s. Because people had both less storage and less bandwidth, images sizes were often a lot smaller than they are today and websites rarely used images as background, although annoying animated GIF images were a common sight (until a patent on the format was activated, whereupon the PNG format was developed and became a standard very quickly). Usually, they used a serif font such as Times New Roman rather than the sans fonts that are normal on most websites today. There was a lot less automation: most web pages were static, i.e. you accessed one file at a time, not a program that would make up a website for you out of a set of templates and a database, which most sites now do, using software like WordPress. Interactive web software was in its infancy and forums rarely used the web: people used email lists, “newsgroups” and IRC (Internet Relay Chat) to chat with each other. Secure web connections were not in widespread use then either: to buy things off the Internet, you would send your debit card number down an open line, in plain text. No encryption. I bought CDs from the US using that method several times when at college, using CD Now and CD Connection. Crypto-currency had never been heard of.

Fewer people had access to the Net back then: you got online at college or in a select group of large companies or maybe through a government department, and some of the online services such as CompuServe and AOL added Internet access in the 90s, though these were often costly and their users became the butt of jokes as they were often ignorant of the Internet’s customs or ‘netiquette’; the period after AOL added Internet access to their services in 1993 came to be known as the “Eternal September”, in reference to the outbreaks of stupidity that had often followed a new batch of college students getting their accounts which were now happening all the time as anyone could get an AOL account any time of the year (and frequently got them through a free CD off the front of a magazine, or through their front door). If you had Internet access, you were assumed to be wealthy, particularly as computers themselves were expensive (you would pay over £1,000 for a computer with a 486 processor and well under a gigabyte of storage). When I got offline in 1998, I had never heard of blogs; Blogger and LiveJournal would not be founded until the following year, and Movable Type (the ‘serious’ blogger’s system of choice in the early 2000s) and b2 (the predecessor of WordPress) not until 2001.

However, I don’t really remember it being a lot friendlier back then. True, most users were adults, because families rarely had access at home, so some of the problems such as school pupils using the Internet to bully others did not happen online then (they relied on ‘traditional’ methods such as physical violence and face-to-face verbal abuse and rumour-spreading). Pornography was in its infancy and the lack of bandwidth and storage made it not worth people’s while, initially, to use the Internet for this (this was already changing during my college days). RealAudio originated during this time but some universities (including mine) did not allow their users to use it because it used too much bandwidth. However, email lists and news groups were frequently the scene of vicious arguments as people were shielded from the feelings of the people reading their words; they thought of them as mere “words on a screen” and the recipients “faceless typists” (a phrase I saw used by an abusive person on a music fan email list). It was during this time that ‘spam’ came to be a major issue; as people could easily post one message to several newsgroups, people would do so automatically, often filling whole groups with nothing but advertisements for fraudulent products, pornographic images or sex lines, herbal pills or a “snail-mail” Ponzi scheme, requiring a community of “despammers” to use “cancel messages” to get rid of them after the fact. Some organisations tried to use the cancel message system to censor criticism; a certain US-based quasi-religious group would use them to get rid of messages containing extracts from their “secret scriptures” and had a group of spammers bombard the same group with extracts from an approved text. You had some downright malicious activity too: on one occasion, someone posted a message containing a rape fantasy to dozens of newsgroups, including an abuse survivors’ group, and on another, a message advertising child abuse pornography was sent to dozens of email addresses, leaving (for example) some people wondering if their partner was actually a user.

There were moral panics about the Internet in the 1990s as there are now. I recall an Observer feature from about 1998 headlined “These men are not paedophiles; they are the Internet abusers”, and one of the men featured was the operator of an “anonymous remailer” service called Penet which would post a message anonymously through email or to a newsgroup. It alleged that people were using this facility to send pornographic images, including of children, though he said that it would not allow images larger than about the size of a postage stamp through, making it useless for that purpose. It was shut down shortly afterwards in a dispute with the religious sect mentioned above, after police in Finland prevailed on them to reveal the overseas users who were posting the copyrighted “scriptures” to newsgroups, although this was misrepresented as being about pornography. As a result, people who had been using the same service to post messages to the abuse survivors’ newsgroup, who did not want their real names used, were forced to find another way of doing so. These days, the same people would use a web forum for their discussions, and web forums can keep out people who are there for malicious purposes and are not as vulnerable to spam as Usenet groups were.

Many of the problems now appearing on the Internet are reflections of problems in wider society. To some extent the Internet has made some forms of abuse easier, but it has also made it easier for people to talk about their problems, to get help, to get advice, to help each other through difficult times in their lives, and to discuss things that could protect themselves or their loved ones from abuse. For example, parents of autistic children have discussed conditions in various psychiatric units to which their children might be admitted, to warn each other that a given institution is abusive or has a history of safeguarding issues. People have definitely been saved from abuse through the Internet, and wrongdoers — abusers and people in authority who neglected their duty — have been exposed. People have campaigned (not always successfully) against cuts to services or benefits, organised to take legal action or to mount protests, given each other advice or pointed each other towards where they can get qualified advice or legal help. People have pointed disabled friends towards medical help and shared their ways of managing their conditions and information on useful products. Of course, to people who cannot easily get out because of illness or disability, the Internet provides a way of contacting other people and breaking the isolation. There are all manner of ways the Internet has been of benefit to society. It is just a mode of communication and there are bad people in society and bad people communicate bad things, but for the rest of us it has been valuable and for some, a life-saver. It is too big to say that it is a less friendly place than the Internet of 20 years ago; there are many ‘places’ on it, some friendly and some not so.

I was asked earlier today whether I missed the days of “Muslim bloglandia”. The answer is that I do, although that period comes after the period I am talking about in this entry, which is the late 1990s. Blogs took off in the early 2000s which is when the software became available and the 9/11 attacks gave a big boost to the new medium. In a sense, that period is a transitional one between the early public internet of the late 90s and the social media age which started around 2008 or so. A good thing about that period is that people would sit down and actually write articles for people to read, rather than writing short snippets for a social media site like Twitter — people would put more effort into their writing; blogs also lacked the “Snitchbook” feature, whereby a social media platform will automatically tip off your friends if you comment on a public post. In 2009 I attended a group talk on the Muslim blogging scene and I was asked about what future I thought blogging had; I responded that I believed that there would probably be a “blog crunch” in which a number of the blogging sites which were based on freebies and long-shot business models would run out of money and close down. In the event, this proved to be true of old-media websites, which have failed to survive online through advertising alone and have opted for subscription models, but blogging simply declined in popularity in favour of social media.

Image source: Marcin Wichary, via Wikimedia. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic licence.

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