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20th January

  Je Suis Charlie...BUT...

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National Secular Society organises discussion in Parliament about the legacy of the Charlie Hebdo and its effect on free speech
Link Here
In praise of blasphemy Members and supporters of the National Secular Society gathered in Portcullis House this week to discuss the future of free speech, two years after the attack on Charlie Hebdo .

The Society was honoured to be joined by Caroline Fourest, who helped edit the Survivor's Edition of Charlie Hebdo published shortly after the massacre.

She discussed the shameful treatment of Charlie Hebdo following the massacre by some UK media outlets: after the attack, Sky News cut her off in the middle of an interview when she tried to show a cartoon of Mohammed. Those who defy Islamic blasphemy laws don't just face violence and threats, she said, but demonisation from the regressive left.

She stressed the need for secularists to condemn anti-Muslim bigotry but criticised the term Islamophobia , arguing that it conflated Muslims with Islam, and stifled discussion about the religion.

Introducing the event, Keith Porteous Wood, the executive director of the National Secular Society, said:

The heartening outpouring of solidarity, the sense of indignation and outrage, the crowds shouting 'Je Suis Charlie' had offered a brief glimmer of hope.

But the solidarity didn't last, our collective outrage quickly gave way to bitter disputes, and bile against Charlie from those who blamed the victims for their own murder. The crowds went home.

The panel also featured writer and journalist Nick Cohen, Jodie Ginsberg of Index on Censorship and Martin Rowson. Nick Cohen urged those present to buy Caroline Fourest's book, In Praise of Blasphemy , after she said that, despite it being a bestseller in France, no UK publisher would touch it. He accused people of making feeble excuses for not showing genuine solidarity with Charlie Hebdo , arguing that there were very good reasons to be frightened of publishing a Mohammed cartoon, but that few would admit that was the true reason.

Jodie Ginsberg, CEO of Index on Censorship, said that a pincer movement was attacking free speech. She pointed to Government proposals for extremism disruption orders as one example, and criticised Tony Blair and other politicians for calling for laws against offending religious feelings. She said that society lacked the ability to debate productively and that whatever you did, however innocuous you think it is, somebody will claim to be offended .  People went very quickly after the attack from saying Je Suis Charlie to, Je Suis Charlie, but... and too many claim to defend free speech but in practice out only the kind I like.

Guardian cartoonist Martin Rowson spoke about the resistance of the paper to publishing a cartoon of Mohammed, and said that any organisation that did so would face tremendous threats, without the safety in numbers that might have been hoped for in the aftermath of the attack two years ago. Rowson added that one of the great threats to freedom of speech was the belief that the greatest human right of all was a right to not be upset.

Jim Fitzpatrick MP, who sponsored the room for the NSS, congratulated the Society on hosting the event and said that it was inspiring to hear such a strong defence of free expression.

 

23rd December

 Update: Crap law in the making...

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Open Rights Group demolishes government's internet censorship tweak to catch porn carrying Twitter and Reddit
Link Here  full story: UK Governments Consults on Age Checks for Porn...Government proposes censoring porn websites that are not age verified

open rights group 2016 logoIs the government misleading the Lords about blocking Twitter?

Last week we reported that the UK government expect the BBFC to ask social media providers, such as Twitter, to block the use of their service by accounts that are associated with porn sites that fail to verify the age of their users.

The Bill is even worse than we illustrated. The definition of a "pornographic website" in Clause 15 (2) is purely a site that operates on a "commercial basis". This could catch any site--including Twitter, Reddit, Tumblr--where pornography can be found. The practical limit would therefore purely be down to the discretion of the regulator, the BBFC, as to the kind of commercial sites they wanted to force to use Age Verification. However, the BBFC does not seem to want to require Twitter or Reddit to apply age verification--at least, not yet.

However, we also got one part wrong last week . In relation to Twitter, Reddit and other websites where porn sites might promote their content, the Bill contains a power to notify these "ancillary services" but has no specific power to enforce the notifications .

In other words, they expect Twitter, Google, Facebook, Tumblr and other companies to voluntarily block accounts within the UK, without a specific legal basis for their action .

This would create a toxic situation for these companies. If they fail to "act" on the "notifications", these services will leave themselves open to the accusation that they are failing to protect children, or actively "supplying" pornography to minors.

On the other hand, if they act on these notices, they will rightly be accused by ourselves and those that are censored of acting in an unaccountable, arbitrary manner. They will not have been legally obliged to act by a court; similar content will remain unblocked; and there will be no clear remedy for someone who wished to contest a "notification". Liability for the blocks would remain with the company, rather than the BBFC.

The government has not been clear with the Lords that this highly unclear situation is the likely result of notifications to Twitter--rather than account blocks, as they have suggested.

There are very good reasons not to block accounts after a mere notification. For instance in this case, although sites can contest a classification at the BBFC, and an internal appeals process will exist, there is no external appeal available, other than embarking on an expensive judicial review. It is not clear that a classification as pornography should automatically lead to action by ancillary services, not least because compliance automatically results in the same content being made available. To be clear, the bill does not aim to remove pornography from Twitter, Reddit users or search engines.

Why then, has the government drafted a bill with this power to notify "ancillary services", but no method to enforce? The reason appears to be that payment providers in particular have a long standing agreement amongst themselves that they will halt payments when they are notified that someone is taking payments for unlawful activity. Similarly, large online ad networks have a similar process of accepting notifications.

There is therefore no need to create enforcement mechanisms for these two kinds of "ancillary providers". (There are pitfalls with their approach--it can lead to censorship and unwarranted damage to businesses--but let us leave that debate aside for now.)

It seems clear that, when the bill was written, there was no expectation that "ancillary providers" would include Twitter, Yahoo, or Google, so no enofrcement power was created.

The government, in their haste, has agreed with the BBFC that they should be able to notify Twitter, Google, Yahoo and other platforms. They have agreed that BBFC need not take on a role of enforcement through court orders.

The key point is that the Lords are being misled by the government as things stand. Neither the BBFC or government have explored with Parliamentarians what the consequences of expanding the notion of "ancillary providers" is.

The Lords need to be told that this change means that:

  • the notices are unenforceable against Internet platforms;

  • they will lead to public disputes with the companies;

  • they make BBFC's decisions relating to ancillary providers highly unaccountable as legal responsibility for account blocks rest with the platforms.

It appears that the BBFC do not wish to be cast in the role of "national censor". They believe that their role is one of classification, rather than enforcement. However, the fact that they also wish to directly block websites via ISPs rather flies in the face of their self-perception, as censorship is most clearly what they will be engaging in. Their self-perception is also not a reason to pass the legal buck onto Internet platforms who have no role in deciding whether a site fails to meet regulatory requirements.

This mess is the result of rushing to legislate without understanding the problems involved. The obvious thing to do is to limit the impact of the "ancillary services" approach by narrowing the definition to exclude all but payment providers and ad networks. The alternative--to create enforcement powers against a range of organisations--would need to establish full accountability for the duties imposed on ancillary providers in a court, something that the BBFC seems to wish to avoid.

Or of course, the government could try to roll back its mistaken approach entirely, and give up on censorship as a punishment: that would be the right thing to do. Please sign our petition if you agree .

 

19th December

  Search Engine Optimism...

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Labour wants Google to reveal its key to the universe
Link Here
chi onwurahLabour's industrial spokesperson has called for the algorithms used by technology firms to be made transparent and subject to regulation.

Shadow minister Chi Onwurah wants to see greater scrutiny of the algorithms that now control everything from the tailored news served to Facebook users to the order in which websites are presented in Google search. She said:

Algorithms aren't above the law. The outcomes of algorithms are regulated -- the companies which use them have to meet employment law and competition law. The question is, how do we make that regulation effective when we can't see the algorithm?

She added in a letter to the Guardian:

Google and others argue their results are a mirror to society, not their responsibility. Google, Facebook and Uber need to take responsibility for the unintended consequences of the algorithms and machine learning that drive their profits. They can bring huge benefits and great apps, but we need a tech-savvy government to minimise the downside by opening up algorithms to regulation as well as legislating for greater consumer ownership of data and control of the advertising revenue it generates.

Labour's industrial paper, due to be published after the Christmas break, will call for suggestions on how tech firms could be more closely supervised by government.