MPs and the Internet

The Labour MP John Mann secured an adjournment debate in the Commons on Tuesday night, taking as his topic “Internet Abuse of Members of Parliament”. Last week, on Wednesday, he had a series of points of order after PMQs foreshadowing what he would say in the debate:

“On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Following the most violent and vitriolic abuse, using Twitter, of my hon. Friend [Luciana Berger], an individual was jailed for four weeks. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, the abuse has worsened and deepened on precisely the same issue in the same violent way. If the medium used were a newspaper, I am quite certain that the House would demand that the editor be dragged to the Bar of the House and forced to explain himself or herself. What advice would you give, Mr Speaker, on how to handle the internet, and specifically Twitter, which is the medium by which this abuse against one of the Members of this House is continuing on a most violent and daily basis?”

It is quite true that Luciana Berger has suffered some appalling abuse, much of it anti-semitic in character, online. But it is also true that the Police have responded to it, and as Mr Mann says, an abuser has been jailed.

There now follows a substantial digression, because I’m intrigued by the idea that a paper editor or anyone else would today be summoned to the Bar of the House; it is a nonsensical idea. If you want to skip it, click here to get to the rest of this post which deals solely with the immediate consequences of Mr Mann.

The last time anyone was summoned to the Bar was in 1957 when John Junor was editing the Sunday Express and he published this comment on the position of politicians during petrol rationing (enforced as a result of the Suez Crisis):

Tomorrow a time of hardship starts for everyone. For everyone? Include the politicians out of that. Petrol rationing will pass them by. They are to get prodigious supplementary allowances. Isn’t it fantastic? The small baker, unable to carry out his rounds, may be pushed out of business. The one-man taxi company may founder. The parent who lives in the country may plead in vain for petrol to drive the kids to schools. But everywhere the tanks of the politicians will be brimming over. What are M.P.s doing about this monstrous injustice? Are they clamouring for Fuel Minister Mr. Aubrey Jones to treat politicians like the rest of the community? If it were a question of company directors getting special preference you may be sure that the howls in Westminster would soon be heard from John o’Groats to Ebbw Vale . [The constituency of a usual target of the Tory press, Aneurin Bevan] But now there is not a squeak of protest. If politicians are more interested in privileges for themselves than in fair shares for all, let it swiftly be made plain to them that the public do not propose to tolerate it. And let Mr. Aubrey Jones know that, if he is so incapable of judging public feeling, he is not fit to hold political office for a moment longer.

The MP Sir Charles Taylor complained in the Commons that this was a contempt of Parliament and a breach of privilege. Mr Speaker Morrison took the view that “I do not feel that every attack of this silly nature should be regarded by the House as a breach of Privilege”, and that the House would do better to turn the other cheek to it. However, MPs from all parties roared their fury, the matter was referred to the Committee of Privilege, and after Junor had appeared before it and failed to grovel enough to satisfy the House, he was summoned to appear at the Bar and apologise on pain of the almost unlimited punishment available to the Commons.

The problem with this course of action, and a reason Mr Mann was unwise to bring it up, is that Junor was mostly telling the truth in his original piece. He was a victim of what we would regard now as a gross abuse of power by the Commons, although the point is invariably missed when the case is mentioned these days. Junor did not specifically accuse MPs of dodging petrol rationing – he said politicians were to get prodigious supplementary allowances” – and in the course of his examination by the Committee of Privileges the scandal emerged that MPs’ constituency workers and others – including prospective Parliamentary candidates – were receiving a top-up ration for ‘political work’. This turned out to be a variation on the modern theme of allowing one’s relatives to benefit from an MPs expenses.

By referring Junor to the Committee of Privileges, the Commons created a storm of further criticism. In 1957, MPs saw themselves as being perhaps “at the top of society” (remember that phrase for later), entitled to a wide range of privilege, and didn’t care. Junor was summoned to the Bar of the House, was reprimanded, and was allowed to go on his way. The episode did rebound on the Commons, because public opinion was becoming less likely to listen patiently to the lectures of MPs than it once was, and the press were keen to exact revenge.

The Spectator archive has an interesting piece on the fall-out of the fiasco, and speaking in the Commons, Richard Crossman gave a very prescient journalist’s view of the issue (and what a fabulous phrase he came up with: “Outrageous attacks, suitably answered, are the essence of democracy”). Scandal upon scandal broke upon politicians thereafter, culminating in the Profumo affair (which Crossman had a part in unveiling in the Commons under privilege). The position of MPs in the eyes of the public eventually reduced to the low state it is now.

After that digression, back to Mr Mann. By modern standards, Junor would not be summoned to the Bar for what he wrote, even if it were untrue. Mr Mann continued from the point of order I referred to above:

“The issue of criminality is well understood and is a matter for the police, not the House, but this is about the medium of communication. If it were a newspaper, then the newspaper would not be committing criminality by allowing itself to be used as the vehicle, and the House would want to have a view on how that newspaper should be held to account. There is precedent from 1956, with John Junor, on how that was done. How can the House hold Twitter to account for its failure to act to stop its platform being used for this abuse?”

It is stretching things greatly to link the Junor case to modern criminality. It is anyway established that Twitter is a “platform” for users and not a “publisher” of their content in the way that a newspaper is. Mr Mann may well wish to change the law, but as it stands it is against his understanding of the media. Mr Speaker Bercow reminded him that criminal matters are for the Police and prosecuting authorities, and recommened he seek an adjournment debate to air his views.

And that leads us to Tuesday night’s event. Adjournment debates never result in a vote on an issue, they are an opportunity for MPs to say whatever they like at the end of a day’s proceedings in a usually-empty chamber. A government minister replies, and everyone goes home after half an hour. That was pretty much what happened in this case, but it is still worth examining. The full Hansard report is here, but I shall extract some bits below.

Mr Mann got underway by referring to the abuse Yaya Toure has received recently on Twitter – unacceptable and clearly actionable under the law as it stands, and that suffered in the past by Stella Creasy – also unacceptable and actionable. He quoted Creasy on the role of the Police and prosecutors:

“the authorities didn’t even know how to begin investigating whether one person was sending these messages — the abusive, hateful and violent messages she was receiving — or many individuals”.

The problem here is that the authorities already have powers to act, but as Creasy suggests, are technically incompetent. It’s a widespread problem in the public service, and it extends to the great majority of the House of Commons.

“A whole range internet providers—Google, Twitter, YouTube, PayPal, Facebook”

PayPal aren’t a form of social media.

“—have agreed five procedures for internet providers:”

Not quite. The Anti-Defamation League have published a code of best practice, having met some of the platforms. It would be useful if the platforms signed up to something like a code of practice, but the ADL is after all a political pressure group and the platforms are unlikely to just adopt their recommendations. It’s no good Mr Mann decrying “anti-Moslem bigotry” while expecting platforms to do the ADL’s bidding.

“Providers should take reports about cyberhate seriously, mindful of the fundamental principles of free expression, human dignity, personal safety and respect for the rule of law.”

What’s “cyberhate”? Seriously, what is it? It is not a crime to hate, and in only particular circumstances is it against the law to express hatred. The law is written carefully to prescribe what they are; why should some vague term be invented by a couple of working parties and a pressure group to make “hatred” in general illegal merely because it is expressed online? A problem encountered almost every time an MP talks about the internet is that they want to impose a different standard upon it to that which one’s conduct “in real life” would be judged against. It’s no good talking about the rule of law if you make such a fundamental error of understanding of what it means. We are all equal before the rule of law and it applies in all fields equally.

There is also the issue that laws are not all the same in different states. The protections of free speech in the US go way beyond those we enjoy in the UK. There is the related problem of jurisdiction, whereby someone outside the UK may effectively say what they like and dare the authorities to come after them. Even an establishment poodle like Paul Staines/Guido Fawkes has done that in the past from the distant fastness of the Republic of Ireland and wherever in the Caribbean he hosted his server at the time.

“Providers that feature user-generated content should offer users a clear explanation of their approach to evaluating and resolving reports of hateful content, highlighting their relevant terms of service.” Having had this happen against me and seeing it against others, I have no idea what those terms are. They are not upfront. They are not available for people to see. No one has a clue what the internet companies claim to be doing about it.”

I think Mr Mann is advertising his inability to use a computer here, rather than highlighting some desperate defect in the policy of social media platforms. If you see an offensive tweet, it takes two clicks to open the “Block or Report” form. If you go down that route, a fourth click takes you to Twitter’s “rules” (as they straightforwardly label their terms of service), which you can also access in one click from your profile page. You are never more than five clicks away from initiating a complaint process. Now, you might well argue (and I would join you) that Twitter is poor when it comes to following up complaints; but it is daft to complain that the process is not “upfront” or “available for people to see”. You can get into the ‘Report’ menu on Facebook in two clicks from seeing something you wish to report.

The problem is not that “the platforms aren’t upfront“, it is that users are just not well-enough educated about online life in general, that they take no time to acquaint themselves with systems and platforms they use before they dive in, that parents are often hopeless at explaining risks online, and that platforms are swamped with a huge number of frivolous and vexatious complaints, as well as the justified ones. Politicians in general think the internet should be some kind of nanny state, where everything is regulated to a high degree and nobody has to take any responsibility for their self-care.

“Providers should offer user-friendly mechanisms and procedures for reporting hateful content.” I would advise anyone to take as an example Twitter. To know how to use Twitter’s response one has to be something of a computer expert. It is not user-friendly and it is not immediately available for those being harassed on the internet by others, sometimes in a criminal way.”

This is nonsense, as we’ve seen, but it’s typical of the sort of thing we hear spouted time after time in the Commons chamber.

“The fourth guideline states: “Providers should respond to user reports in a timely manner.” Even when the police use RIPA requests for Twitter, Facebook and others, they go to the United States, or even Europe where the companies have their headquarters, rather than have them agreed in this country. This delays hugely the ability of the police to gain the information even to contemplate prosecuting.”

Well for a start, RIPA is abused constantly by the state, and it has been ever since it was passed. But it is true that the platforms are mostly domiciled overseas. How is Mr Mann going to compel anyone to domicile themselves in the UK to suit the authorities here? What powers has Parliament to do that? He could always make the UK a sort-of Chinese ‘walled garden’ and only allow UK internet users to access “acceptable” UK-domiciled channels, I guess….

“I am not suggesting, and nobody else is, a hierarchy of victims or any special privileged treatment for MPs…”

Mr Mann was suggesting ‘offenders’ should be summoned to the Bar of the House in his point of order. That sounds like a different process to that available to Joe Public.

“…but the fact is that Members of Parliament are receiving the most grotesque and criminal hate abuse on the internet. If that can be done to Members of Parliament, can we imagine what is being done to people out in the community? I am now hearing countless examples of the most extraordinary abuse even of tiny children and of victims being abused when the victim complains. Businesses are another example, with people’s businesses torn apart by abuse on the internet.”

Mr Mann clearly means “most” in the sense of quality, not quantity. But people in the wider community generally do little to draw attention to themselves and only rarely take controversial public positions. They are not subjected to deluges of abuse. Surely Mr Mann isn’t trying to pretend that “cyberhate” is a far bigger problem than it really is, in order to justify censorship and further legislation?

“A system that would work for a Member of Parliament at the top of society—as, in reality, we are—should and must also work for anybody in society.”

I’m not sure many outside Parliament would regard MPs as being “at the top of society”. The reason they are held in such enormous contempt by the public is precisely that kind of attitude from MPs. I nearly fell over laughing when he said that.

“In law, there is an ability to ban or block individuals on social media in relation to sexual offences. This needs to be widened to all bullying and harassment on the internet where it can be shown in a detailed way that individuals have taken a considered and determined view in advance to exploit the networks to harm others. These rules should apply in all forms of harassment and abuse.”

I’m amazed that anyone would equate people who misuse the internet in potentially quite minor ways with sex offenders, but again we have an MP seeing scary monsters in every corner of the internet. Don’t forget, Mr Mann hasn’t offered any definition of what constitutes a crime except this Brass Eye-esque “cyberhate”.

“Why are we not using internet banning orders, ASBO equivalents for social media? If we can ban people from going to a certain pub or a certain football match, or any football match…”

Football banning orders are routinely ignored, and are not policed by clubs because they have few resources to enforce them. The analogy with life on the internet is exactly the opposite of what Mr Mann supposes it to be. The aspect of football banning orders that requires offenders to report to Police stations and surrender passports is more effective, but there is no equivalent online. There is also the issue that football banning orders for a long time were abused widely by the state and do themselves represent an excessive punishment in many cases where they have been obtained.

“The powers exist in law but if the police were to ask for such powers and if those powers were to be implemented by the courts as part of prosecutions, there would be more ability to close down those who refuse to be tolerant and decent and who are criminal abusers of the existing law.”

I doubt very much there “would be more ability to close down” anyone’s internet activity. Are you going to make people log onto the internet via retina recognistion systems? There is no law requiring us to be “tolerant”, however valuable a social commodity tolerance is.

“We do not need new law. We need the current law to be used imaginatively to remove profiles from the internet, to delete accounts and to stop people continuing their abuse in exactly the same way as the police can confiscate hardware and so on.”

I suspect the Mr Manns of Westminster will be back soon enough to demand new law, when they find their codes of conduct and what-have-you are ineffectual. They are already getting ready to try to foist the “snoopers’ charter” on us once more. I’m not at all sure that law should be used “imaginatively”. Of course courts interpret laws to suit changing circumstances, within reason. But “imaginatively”? Mr Mann could expand a bit as to what he means. As for “deleting accounts”, I think “Old Holborn” is on his 36th Twitter account, having been repeatedly cut off despite never having been convicted of a criminal offence for his activity on Twitter. Some people are constantly deleted by social media operators if the right sort of people complain about them, regardless of whether or not an offence has been committed.

But we know how easy it is for people to switch to other mobiles or to internet cafes to continue and they are doing that.”

Finally the penny drops. It doesn’t matter how much equipment the Police confiscate, anyone can get online easily enough by other means. Let’s not even mention Tor, and other aspects of the “dark web” which are guaranteed to get MPs panicking. No amount of law, or law enforcement, is going to solve the problem on its own. We need several things in order to protect ourselves from the undoubted perils of life on the internet. Education of users, to understand that they are as much responsible for where they go online as they are for where they go when they are walking along the street. Education of users, to understand that it is up to them to access platforms’ grievance procedures themselves. Education of users, to understand that it is easy to libel someone online, and that what they say or do online may never go away. Education of users, to understand what rights they have against harassment and abuse and how to get the authorities to act when things become unacceptable.

Finally, we need education of everyone, but especially MPs (many of whom have the same unrealistic view of online life as John Mann), almost in basic terms of “what the internet is and how it works”. If you’re teaching someone to drive a car, hazard perception is rightly part of the course. But it is only part of the wider training. Technological education is in everyone’s interest, and it is a far better way of going about solving the problems of online life than involving the law or the Police, or having MPs panic and waffle at Westminster.

 

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