A Bullet for General Freedom

There is a misconception in the UK that we have freedom of speech and expression. We don’t. While the Daily Mail may rabble rouse and complain about the evils of censorship whenever someone pulls its support (blissfully ignoring the time its own ‘broad-minded’ art critic called for a film he’d never watched to be banned), the fact is the UK has a long and proud tradition of censorship.

The Obscene Publications Act, the Video Recordings Act, Criminal Justice and Immigration Act, the Audiovisual Media Services Regulations, and of course, the Digital Economy Act. Society has told itself that censoring the arts in this manner is fine. After all, a grizzly horror film or BDSM flick doesn’t have any great value. Such productions are offensive to people’s moral sensibilities! What those people miss is that if you say it’s okay to ban this filth because you personally don’t like it, then you’re labelling everything fair game.

The Great Silence

The major problem is that censorship only ever begets more censorship. Keith Vaz launched a one-man crusade against the video game industry, fortunately with only limited success. Pressure group ‘Not Buying It’ is targeting strip clubs in Sheffield and has submitted a woefully misleading report based on outdated research on why all pornography should be banned. Our country has embraced censorship. These people have precedent on their side.

When we deem one thing harmful or offensive enough to be banned, then we have no excuse not to go after the next thing. Those who bemoan the PC Brigade for ruining their fun have only themselves to blame for allowing censorship to be pushed this far in the first place. More censorship is the reward for staying silent about censorship.

Once Upon a Time in the UK

Thus, we get to Matt Hancock. The Secretary of State for the DCMS, Matt Hancock is the worst type of authoritarian moral crusader. Matt sees the Internet as a Wild West frontier and he is the man who is going to ride in and tame it. Hancock is tasked with ensuring the Digital Economy Act is implemented without a hitch. However, he’s aiming his six-shooter at even more than online smut.

Matt wants to tackle the scourge of ‘fake news’ online. Perhaps he might start by looking at his own party? The Conservatives recently attempted to take credit for EU rules on credit card surcharges. Sounds like fake news to me which is the real concern: who decides what is fake?

Call me cynical, even paranoid, but when a government starts choosing what is ‘real’ news we might as well all defect to North Korea. No one denies that the Internet is overflowing with liquified bullshit but so is the tabloid press and the Tories haven’t taken aim at them before. I wonder if donations and support have anything to do with it? A Ministry of Facts under the government’s thumb could easily start labelling inconvenient news as fake. Furthermore, life is very rarely black and white. A crackdown on ‘fake news’ could very well become a crackdown on interpretation.

A Fistful of Fear

Hancock’s next big project is to make the Internet safe for his children. Most responsible parents would work with their children to ensure that they remain safe online. That’s not enough for Matt. He wants to work with your children, too. In fact, Hancock believes that the state should mandate how much time a child spends on social media and that Age Verification should be expanded to these sites. Someone emailed me to suggest my previous post on this was fearmongering!

Currently, these are only speculative proposals from a naïve authoritarian. However, that he has chosen to voice them publicly invite scrutiny. What is Matt classifying as social media? I gather that he’ll go after Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Are we including Tumblr, even though that’s more of a blogging platform? How about Xbox Live and PlayStation Network? Discord is very popular these days too.

Matt betrays any notion he even knows how children use social media. It isn’t all about pictures of cats, food and what “that bitch Shaz” said about you. Social media provides children with a chance to work together on homework projects. Those who are away from school for a while due to sickness or injury can stay in touch with their friends. During hazardous weather, kids can communicate online when they can’t go out. There are plenty of good reasons for teenagers to use social media. Matt Hancock, however, sees only bad.

For a Few Networks More

Even if he isn’t planning on going after every possible Hangout for teenagers, he’ll soon find he is chasing kids across the Internet (ahem)! Much like the government’s prior attempts to track and limit access to certain sites, he risks pushing some of them into harder to find places.

Always remember, once one kid in a peer group knows a way around a technical obstacle, others soon will too. Yet the true point is, kids shouldn’t have to jump from place to place to avoid the tyrannical hand of Hancock. I used the Internet a lot when I was in my teens. I’m old enough to remember the cesspool that was Microsoft’s IRC server. I remember ICQ, where randoms would try to befriend you on the basis they had the same name! Do you know what Internet freedom taught me? Responsibility.

Of course, some children are vulnerable and easy prey to a twisted element of our society, but the Internet is a huge part of modern life and will continue to be so. Trying to place children in a protective bubble does them a disservice. The policy should not be censorship and restriction but education and discussion. Children are not always safe online because we fail in our responsibilities to educate them and their parents on warning signs. It is typical of the Conservative Party to look for quick fixes to complex problems and one which only creates further issues down the line.

The Good, the Bad and the Age Verified

Expanding Age Verification is utterly barmy. Age Verification is a stupid, flawed and overbearing solution to a problem best handled through education as it is, but as an adult, why the fuck should I have to verify my age with nigh-on every site I visit? Once you’ve set it up on Social Media and Adult sites, then why not on other sites? We don’t want children seeing ‘Distressing Images’ on news sites, right? Best AV them too. People with WordPress or BlogSpot blogs could be writing about anything. We should probably enforce AV. Children could use their parent’s Amazon account to purchase a Rampant Rabbit and a massive barrel of lube! Shit, best get AV on online stores!

Before long, the policy will be to block access to any site not on a register of sites with approved government AV. Matt’s crusade to deploy AV and filters will be much like the ever-tightening grip of censorship around arts and media in the UK. A further danger in AV’ing the shit out of the Internet is what age-rating do we apply to certain sites? Mountains of evidence already exists to how useless the current filter system is – gardeners, florists, solicitors, LGBTQ support sites, etc. have all found their way to ISP parental filters.

Matt Rides a Horse

This stupid policy might be a vote-winner with people as technically ignorant as Hancock, but for everyone else, it will be the overbearing nanny state further reaching to control all that we do. Matt has no right to tell children how long they can spend talking to their friends. He has no right to appoint himself Parental General. And he definitely has no right to hand over more personal information to private Age Verification companies – or himself! The Matt Hancock App (yes, it’s a thing!) has been found to collect all sorts of personal information an MP doesn’t fucking need.

Seriously, Matt, why don’t you just round up all the children and have them raised in special government camps until they’re 18?