Tag Archives: censorship

Causing offence on social media – the best overview yet

Susanna Rustin has written one of the best overviews I’ve yet seen of the growing number of legal cases involving individuals being put in jail for being ‘offensive’ – vital reading if you’re interested in media freedom and media law, given the obvious implications for journalism.

The key law here is the Communications Act 2003, specifically Section 127, which I’ve written about previously in 7 laws journalists now need to know.

Rustin summarises a number of cases where individuals have been prosecuted and jailed under the Act, and focuses in particular on two recent cases relating to social media updates posted following the stabbing of a school teacher.

“The cases of [Jack] Newsome and [Robert] Riley are different. They did not target or menace individuals, and lawyers and human rights campaigners have this week raised concerns about their being jailed for causing offence.”

Former director of public prosecutions Keir Starmer, provides some useful legal context and raises his own concerns around how “too many prosecutions for these kinds of offences can have the effect of chilling free speech”:

“There always used to be a protected space, so you could say things in private you could not say in public. With social media there is no protected space, and that’s what there needs to be a debate about. The notions around place and reaction just don’t work with social media. You could have a situation where two people in their living room make remarks to each other for which they would never be arrested, but if they make these remarks by email, they could be, as the legislation covers any public electronic communication system.”

Read the article in full here.

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FAQ: Social media and media freedom

More questions from a student as part of the ongoing FAQ series. This time it’s about the role of social media in ‘media freedom’, competition between social media and mainstream media, and credibility of citizen journalists…

1. What effects do you think social media, like blogs, Facebook, Twitter, have had on media freedom?

Given that media freedom is largely about the legal and political framework in which organisations operate, I’d say social media has had very little effect. An analogy would be asking what effect hammers have had on builders’ freedoms: it’s another tool which they can use, but whether they use it and how depends on what happens to them if they do. Continue reading

The future of open journalism: how journalists need to step up their game

Wolf blowing down the pig's house

Illustration by Leonard Leslie Brooke, from Wikimedia Commons

Cross-posted from XCity Magazine

The future of journalism, according to The Guardian’s ‘3 Little Pigs’ film, is “open journalism”. Users are becoming part of every element of news production. The newsroom no longer has walls.

If that is going to happen then journalists need to huff, and puff, and blow down three particular houses of our own: our preconceptions around the sources that we use online; around why people contribute to the news process; and about how we protect our sources. Continue reading

Twitter’s ‘censorship’ is nothing new – but it is different

Over the weekend thousands of Twitter users boycotted the service in protest at the announcement that the service will begin withholding tweets based on the demands of local governments and law enforcement.

Protesting against censorship is laudable, but it is worth pointing out that most online services already do the same, whether it’s Google’s Orkut; Apple removing apps from its store; or Facebook disabling protest groups.

Evgeny Morozov’s book The Net Delusion provides a good indicative list of examples:

“In the run-up to the Olympic torch relay passing through Hong Kong in 2008, [Facebook] shut down several groups, while many pro-Tibetan activists had their accounts deactivated for “persistent misuse of the site … Twitter has been accused of silencing online tribute to the 2008 Gaza War. Apple has been bashed for blocking Dalai Lama–related iPhone apps from its App Store for China … Google, which owns Orkut, a social network that is surprisingly popular in India, has been accused of being too zealous in removing potentially controversial content that may be interpreted as calling for religious and ethnic violence against both Hindus and Muslims.”

What’s notable about the Twitter announcement is that it suggests that censorship will be local rather than global, and transparent rather than secret. Techdirt have noted this, and Mireille Raad explains the distinction particularly well:

  • “Censorship is not silent and will not go un-noticed like most other censoring systems
  • The official twitter help center article includes the way to bypass it – simply – all you have to do is change your location to another country and overwrite the IP detection.
    Yes, that is all, and it is included in the help center
  • Quantity – can you imagine a govt trying to censor on a tweet by tweet basis a trending topic like Occupy or Egypt or Revolution – the amount of tweets can bring up the fail whale despite the genius twitter architecture , so imagine what is gonna happen to a paper work based system.
  • Speed – twitter, probably one of the fastest updating systems online –  and legislative bodies move at glaringly different speeds – It is impossible for a govt to be able to issue enough approval for a trending topic or anything with enough tweets/interest on.
  • Curiosity kills the cat  and with such an one-click-bypass process, most people will become interested in checking out that “blocked” content. People are willing to sit through endless hours of tech training and use shady services to access blocked content – so this is like doing them a service.”

I’m also reminded of Ethan Zuckerman’s ‘Cute Cats Theory’ of censorship and revolution, as explained by Cory Doctorow:

“When YouTube is taken off your nation’s internet, everyone notices, not just dissidents. So if a state shuts down a site dedicated to exposing official brutality, only the people who care about that sort of thing already are likely to notice.

“But when YouTube goes dark, all the people who want to look at cute cats discover that their favourite site is gone, and they start to ask their neighbours why, and they come to learn that there exists video evidence of official brutality so heinous and awful that the government has shut out all of YouTube in case the people see it.”

What Twitter have announced (and since clarified) perhaps makes this all-or-nothing censorship less likely, but it also adds to the ‘Don’t look at that!’ effect. The very act of censorship, online, can create a signal that is counter-productive. As journalists we should be more attuned to spotting those signals.

Blocking content sites by ‘self-regulation’ – a recipe for easy censorship

At the start of this month I said that journalists were failing to “protect the public sphere”. Well, here’s just one example of this in action that we need to be watching.

Ed Vaizey, Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, has confirmed to the Open Rights Group “that discussion are ongoing between rights-holders and Internet Service Providers about ‘self-regulatory’ site-blocking measures.”

For journalists any move in this direction should be particularly concerning, as it provides a non-legal avenue (i.e. without due process) for anyone to suppress information they don’t like.

The point is not blocking sites, but the ease with which it might be done. If distribution van drivers ‘self-regulated’ to stop delivering newspapers whenever anyone complained, publishers and journalists would have a problem. An avenue to appeal doesn’t solve it, because by then the editorial moment will likely have passed – not to mention the extra costs it incurs for content producers.

Here are some precedents from elsewhere:

If you want to write to your MP, you can do so here.

Review: Search Engine Society by Alexander Halavais

Searching is the most popular activity online after email. It is the prism through which we experience a significant proportion of the world’s information – from news and information about our community, through to health information, commerce, and just about anything that has a presence online.

Search Engine Society takes a critical look at search engines, how they work, the techniques used to manipulate them – from gaining better rankings to censorship, and the implications for privacy and democracy. Continue reading

Review: The Blogging Revolution by Antony Loewenstein

From the Baghdad Blogger to Twittering the Chinese Earthquake, plenty has been written about the potential of blogs to allow Western readers access to foreign voices: the ‘Parachute Journalism’ of ‘Our Man in Tehran’ is appearing increasingly anachronistic and paternalistic next to the experiences and thoughts of those caught in the crossfire.

Despite this, mainstream media portrayals of countries like Iran, Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Cuba and China remains largely superficial.

This is the problem that Antony Loewenstein seeks to address with The Blogging Revolution (Amazon US) – a book which is as much about bloggers as it is a demonstration of what blogging has made possible. Continue reading