The Independent View: Ben Hammersley writes… Let the Internet be so that good can flourish

It was only going to be a matter of time before the technology was blamed. The rioters, along with the rest of the western world, were found to have been using the dominant communication platform of the 21st century as, well, their dominant communication platform. The government’s response: give us powers to turn it off. As the Prime Minister said this morning,

So we are working with the Police, the intelligence services and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality.

The ability, then, to monitor, and censor, all the internet traffic in the UK. It would be, without hyperbole, a completely unworkable, ineffective, counter-productive, intrusive and not least expensive intrusion into the basic human rights of the people of this country. Not, as they say, good.

To the people proposing this new system that might sound hysterical. Does Number 10 seriously want to censor the whole internet? Probably not, no. The rub lies in the technology you would need to do the little they will claim is necessary. The fundamental architecture of the internet means that to do the little they want to do today, will require building a system that can do everything in the future. And once it is in place, the temptation to use the system for ever more things would be overwhelming.

It’s a fundamental tenet of a free society that we don’t ever build an apparatus that could be used against us. It’s not that we don’t trust you specifically, Minister, but that we don’t trust the guys who might come next.

While an over-reaction might be forgivable – the pressure to announce something, anything, must be overwhelming for the Prime Minister this week – this particular policy is incompatible with the rest of the aims of the government and the nation. The fundamental tenets of free speech, due process, and protection from a darker future aside, an apparatus that allows the government to close down speech will send deeply unhelpful messages to others outside the country. Foreign Office campaigns about censorship and free speech in the Middle East and North Africa, China, and so on, for example, would be deeply damaged. Who would we be to tell the Chinese to stop censoring the internet when we’d do it ourselves?

Infrastructural censorship regimes, as the Prime Minister’s response this morning would need, require a trust that no one can give: that the system won’t be abused in the future. So what to do instead? Social media is just another form of speech, and part of the responsibilities of a law-abiding democracy is not to shut down speech, but to open it up. Expose those who call for lawlessness, and reward those who call for good. For every call to riot, we have a hundred riotcleanup hashtags, and the call to “Do Something Nice for Ashraf Haziq”.

Yes, the internet is lawless and ungovernable, but we must let it be: so the good can flourish, and the rioter’s damage is restricted only to things we can rebuild.

* Ben Hammersley is Editor at Large of Conde Nast’s Wired UK magazine, and Principal, Dangerous Precedent.

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8 Comments

  • Stuart Mitchell 13th Aug '11 - 2:40pm

    Ben, are you opposed to Cleanfeed?

  • Simon McGrath 13th Aug '11 - 7:10pm

    “It’s a fundamental tenet of a free society that we don’t ever build an apparatus that could be used against us.”
    No it isnt. if that was the case we would not have an army or a police force or give the state the power to listen to our phone calls or intercept our mail.

    A free society needs to be built so that there are proper safeguards against the misuse of these apparatus.

  • Richard Hill 14th Aug '11 - 4:56pm

    Personaly I have no problem with my calls being monitered. If I’m not doing anything wrong why should I worry.
    If an oppresive regime comes to power whatever systems are in place does not make much diffrence. They will soon develope ways of achieving there ends. Why are you so worried about your calls being monitered.

  • @Richard Hill:
    Personaly I have no problem with my calls being monitered. If I’m not doing anything wrong why should I worry.

    Wow. Spoken like a true Liberal who loves freedom…sigh.

  • Stuart Mitchell 14th Aug '11 - 5:50pm

    Ben, so just to clarify, would you be happy to get rid of Cleanfeed and not have anything put in its place to block child abuse sites?

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