Comment: Twitter, Facebook & Google are the scapegoats of the 21st Century
There is something revealing about the ease with which politicians attack internet firms.
Earlier this year, Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and David Cameron read Google's Eric Schmidt the riot act over his tax arrangements, even though the firm had stayed within the laws they themselves had set.
Last week Cameron seemed to pin much of the blame for the existence of pornography on Google, unhelpfully conflating pornography viewed by children, pornography featuring children and general pornography into one category and then using it as a club to beat the company with.
This morning the home affairs committee backed him up. "The prime minister was right to highlight the responsibility of the internet service providers, search engines and social media sites," chairman and professional luddite Keith Vaz decreed.
"They are far too laid back about what takes place on their watch and they need to do more to take inappropriate content down. If they do not act, the government should legislate."
Now it's Twitter's turn. The social media company is accused of failing to take seriously the vile messages of sexual violence directed at prominent women on site.
We're seeing a combination of some very common mistakes in political thinking. Firstly, that technology is capable of Matrix-levels of power, erasing all the jagged edges of the human condition at the touch of a button without consequence, like some sort of digital God. Two, the idea that simple, tabloid-friendly solutions exist to complex problems. And three, that it is more tempting to tackle the effect, rather than the cause, of social problems.
Twitter has not, it must be said, had a good crisis. Its default statement of saying it won't comment on individual cases looks clinical and mean-spirited. Its failure to appear on Newsnight yesterday was a PR blunder. It is failing to get its message across.
But its practical response is more understandable. The idea that Twitter is responsible for abusive messages sent on the site makes as much sense as holding a pub responsible for the fact someone attacked you in it, or blaming Royal Mail for someone sending you a threatening letter.
Twitter is designed to be a forum for adults, not a play area for children in which it is the teacher and security guard.
The firm has been asked to force users to sign up using their real name. This would be devastating, ridding us of some of the best Twitter has to offer – anonymous whistleblowers, activists and eyewitnesses at key events around the world who could never take the risk of posting under their real name.
Others want it to introduce a small fee. This would be an unacceptable limitation on one of the most egalitarian and dynamic inventions of the 21st century.
The most popular proposal is for an 'abuse' button which could red flag commentary on Twitter. This is not an unreasonable request, but people's optimism about the ease with which it could be introduced far exceeds their ability to think through the implications of doing so.
Twitter is a bursting petridish of interests: friends organising parties to hip hop stars mocking their audience to trolls and senior political commentators. One small change has wide reaching effects which a firm like Twitter would be insane not to contemplate.
Not long ago Guardian columnist Suzanne Moore wrote an off-the-cuff comment about transsexuals. The ensuing outrage prompted a defence by her friend Julie Birchill, which upset people even more. At the time, many of those angered by the comments branded it "hate speech", in an attempt to imply that it was, in effect, criminal.
There is a growing tendency in online discussion to have certain views struck off as criminal or socially beyond-the-pale. An abuse button would be quickly drawn into that strategy. It would most certainly have been pressed after the Moore and the Burchill pieces and it will be used against many others for which it was not intended and is not suitable.
What about a teenager pressing the abuse button repeatedly on the girl who split up with him? Or the film director who urges his thousands of followers to press the button on a particularly negative cinema critic? The standard manner of speech in some communities uses abusive terminology among friends. How does that classify if someone later holds an unrelated grudge?
Twitter is apparently introducing that button (and already has on its mobile site). The concern is that it will require an ever expanding army of moderators to live up to the expectations it sets. The social media site is reluctantly being dragged into the role of policeman. It is not a role we should desire it to fill, particularly since the messages in question are already against the law. The Malicious Communications Act 2003 outlaws threatening messages, while Caroline Criado-Perez's tormentor is being done for plain old harassment.
The abuse button will not work. As happened last night, when @killcreasynow posted grotesque threats against the Labour MP, an account can be shut down after half an hour only for it emerge with a new name minutes later. The only way to prevent this would be to scrap anonymity and scrapping anonymity would destroy the best accounts that Twitter has to offer – the kind which give us eyewitness accounts of uprisings in Istanbul and Cairo, the kind history books of the future will feature.
Google faces the same problem, as politicians line up to attack it for not doing enough to stop children's access to porn.
Porn is unstoppable. No system will ever be able to prevent it. It will exist so long as there is supply and demand, and there will always be supply and demand for pornography. No filtering system is smarter than human ingenuity and intuition. Google's ability to limit children's access to porn is vastly overstated.
Facebook is in the same position when it comes to photographs of nudity. Of course, the site is responsible for some insane decisions, especially around its evident fear of the human nipple. "Deep flesh wounds" are allowed, but no breast feeding. It all seems like the product of a disturbed mind – maybe even a troll. But in fact it is the same situation Google and Twitter find themselves in.
They are dealing with the endless complexity of human behaviour, across the world, across genders and ages and races and styles of expression. Any rule they set has millions of unintended consequences. Of course a mother should be able to post a picture of her breastfeeding her child. But if Facebook had no rules on nudity, how long would it be before the naked woman in the background of a university party photo complained that her drunken high jinx were online for all to see?
Which violation is worse? That drunken, nude photo appearing and staying online forever? Or the mother who has an internet company decree what she can and can't show her friends and family?
People desperately want easy solutions to complex questions. They are worried about their children seeing porn, so the prime minister tells them he's forcing internet firms to do something about it, even though he's fully aware they can't.
People want to women to be able to speak up without facing violent death threats, so politicians act as if Twitter should regard itself as a world policeman for its users.
The truth is that these are not modern problems. They are very old problems. They are about the fact that misogyny exists, that sexual fantasy exists.
There are no short cuts for dealing with these problems. We have to challenge misogyny, culturally and sometimes legally. We have to teach children about sex and fantasy and the difference between the two before they come in contact with either. We have to find that middle ground between privacy and moral judgement in the way we share our lives.
It's much easier just to blame the internet firms. And that's why you will see more and more politicians doing so with ever greater relief. But the answer is not where they seek it.
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