It being silly season here in the UK, the thoughts of politicians and journalists have inevitably turned to dreaming up threats to the nation’s children, and launching moral panic campaigns based on these. The favorite target, probably because neither politicans nor journalists have much of a clue how it works, is the Internet.
First up, our glorious leader, Dave, has decided that British children need to be prevented from seeing anything on the Internet without their parents permission. The spin is protecting them from porn, such as is freely available in every newsagent, but inevitably the net will be cast much wider to take in things that kids really need to know, but which parents may wish to keep them in ignorance of. Thus we discover that sites that give support to kids suffering from eating disorders, or who are struggling with suicidal thoughts, are likely to be blocked. Bizarrely, sites offering “esoteric knowledge” are also to be targeted.
The main problem with such schemes is that the software implementing the filters is likely to be very dumb, and difficult to challenge (remember all the trouble we had with the Hugos webcast on UStream last year?). It is likely, for example, that many LGBT support groups will end up being blocked as “pornographic”. That’s especially the case for trans sites, give that the government made it clear during debate on the same-sex marriage bill that they regard trans people as dangerous perverts that “normal” people need protecting from. Equally sites that give support to people suffering from domestic violence will be deemed “violent” and blocked. Large and powerful organizations such a S’onewall are likely to be able to get around this, and I don’t expect the Guardian website to be blocked because of Liz Williams’ articles on paganism. But for the smaller charities and support groups, and for private individuals, the bureaucratic hoops that you’ll be required to jump through to get unblocked are likely to be a major challenge.
Currently this isn’t full censorship. It will be possible to opt out, and if your ISP is not one of the major suppliers signed up to the scheme then you’ll be OK anyway. But the filter will be there by default, and most people won’t bother to turn it off (or indeed be able to work out how to do so). And that means that I expect that a lot of UK residents will no longer be able to see this blog (because it discusses trans issues), or my bookstore (because it sells novels with LGBT themes).
Meanwhile the commentariat is getting exercised over the subject of trolling. This did at least start with a genuine problem: the appalling level of abuse that gets directed at women who dare to express feminist opinions online. A lot of men have had their eyes opened by articles showing examples of the sort of crap that high profile women like Laurie Penny have to put up with on a day-to-day basis.
The trouble is that people now think that “something must be done”, and because actually stopping the people who send this abuse from hating women seems an insoluble problem, something quick and potentially disastrous gets proposed instead.
The problems with an “abuse” button on Twitter are manyfold. To start with, Twitter hasn’t caused this problem, and is by no means the only place that trolls operate, so a Twitter-based solution only targets one symptom amongst many. The attraction, for celebrity journalists, is that it reduces the whole issue to a popularity contest. So if someone has a go at them then they’ll be able to get all of their followers to report that person as abusive, whereas ordinary people are unlikley to be able to complain effectively if they get abused.
Even then, however, the celebrities won’t be safe. After all, an abuse button is just another tweak in the rules of the game. The trolls will be eagerly working out how they can use it to their advantage. They are in the game to make life difficult and unpleasant for others, and they are prepared to spend huge amounts of time and effort on it. People just trying to get on with their lives will inevitably lose out, and commercial operations like Twitter and Facebook won’t be willing to spend a fortune to help us.
There are, I am sure, things that can be done. One good suggestion I saw was that Twitter should provide a higher level filter that someone under attack can use to limit the messages that they see to ones from people that they know and trust. Also Twitter does monitor frequency of posting (because you get locked out if you tweet too frequently). It should be possible to spot someone who is targeting an individual with lots of tweets. One author I follow mentioned getting 2000 tweets from one troll. That sort of thing is obvious.
Finally, of course, much of what is said by trolls is already covered by existing legislation. Threatening to rape or kill someone can result in you ending up in court. The big problem there is getting the authorities to take the problem seriously. It is hard enough to get a conviction if you have actually been raped, let alone get the police to do something about rape threats. Facebook is very enthusiastic about banning pictures of women breastfeeding on the grounds they they are offensive. It doesn’t show anywhere near the same level of concern over pictures of women being beaten or raped. Indeed, when a successful campaign was waged by feminists asking leading brands to protest to Facebook about their ads appearing to endorse violence against women, Facebook’s reaction was to promise to keep advertising off such pages.
It all comes back to social attitudes again. If men don’t take abuse of women seriously, then no amount of technological fixes will solve the problem. Sadly that means that more brave people will have to poke their heads above the parapet and make themselves targets, then talk about what happened. It is horrible, but I don’t see any other way we’ll get change.