Writing On a Gate: Britain’s Online Safety BillMark Gullick
John Stuart Mill, in On Liberty, provides us with a brief crime report from the nineteenth century:
Penalties for opinion, or at least for its expression, still exist by law; and their enforcement is not, even in these times, so unexampled as to make it at all incredible that they may some day be revived in full force. In the year 1857, at the summer assizes of the county of Cornwall, an unfortunate man, said to be of unexceptionable conduct in all relations of life, was sentenced for 21 months’ imprisonment, for uttering, and writing on a gate, some offensive words concerning Christianity.
In Britain today, the government is about to engage the next stage in the process of establishing full legislative control, one which will indeed seek to “revive in full force” the law against the “offensive words” Mill describes. Instead of a gate, we have the Internet, and it is ironic that “offensive words concerning Christianity” are among the only ones likely to remain undisturbed. Following the lead of Scotland and Canada, the United Kingdom is looking to tighten the garrote on the already gasping throat of what used to free speech with its Online Safety Bill (OSB).
The relevant press release on the government’s website is a very thorny briar patch, but on an initial reading you get a sense of just how alien and other these times feel, depending of course on your age (I have been alive for over a third of the time that has elapsed since the unfortunate gentleman’s misdemeanor in the assizes of Cornwall in 1857, the year Joseph Conrad was born). The OSB is a snapshot of where the twentieth-century West has travelled. Areas of concern mentioned include “revenge porn,” “suicide chat rooms,” “pile-ons,” and “epilepsy trolling.” What, you may ask, have we become, and why so quickly?
Stepping back from the last two years, we can see that a conflagration that began burning in the 1960s has received an accelerant. The Left had been trudging dutifully through the institutions all that time, pre-COVID, having done what Guillaume Faye claimed the Right had failed to do, which was to read Gramsci properly. Then, with the artificially maintained pandemic narrative and resultant restrictions and requirements, the political and cultural atmosphere for the far Left suddenly became breathable.
It is difficult for us on the political Right to understand just how fervently swaths of the Left desire the curtailment of personal freedom. And the acquiescence shown, for example, by the vast numbers of ordinary people who have indicated in recent polling (if these polls have integrity) that they are quite happy for the continuation of lockdowns, masks, and boosters will be much to their liking. The term “mass formation psychosis” has been used to qualify this meek acceptance, and it is often discussed by Dr. Robert Malone, the virologist barred from much of social media and at the center of the Joe Rogan affair.
If this seems to be headed towards conspiracy theory, a word about such constructions. “Conspiracy theorist,” like “racist” and “white supremacist,” is a trump card the Left use to invalidate debate. I don’t believe many Right-wingers accuse the Left of conspiracy theories, unless you count such confections as the revised history of slavery, the fluidity of gender, the non-existence of antifa and critical race theory, and so on.
Conspiracy theories from Area 51 to 9/11, from JFK to Epstein (Jeffrey Epstein, not the theory that Beatles manager Brian Epstein didn’t really commit suicide), tend to be event-led; attempts to solve a moot but singular historical problem. Now, we must cast our net wider. The conspiracy theory has gone global. As children we played with dot-to-dot puzzles, following sequentially numbered dots with a pencil until a picture appeared. With conspiracy theories that attempt to explain why what is happening to us in the West is happening to us, we are faced with a dot-to-dot puzzle featuring an ocean of unnumbered dots, and whichever we join can join to any other, a picture will still emerge. It is, in fact, a part of modern governance to provide ever more dots.
But it is difficult to deny that the Western political class has seen exactly what a sudden increase in power is like, and many of them like what they see. They have managed, with consummate ease, both to curtail and to track the movements of ordinary people. They have destabilized and demoralized their citizens in the way described by Yuri Bezmenov. And they have expanded their own executive role to test the boundaries of how much further they can go. Canada is currently finding out just how far.
In 1965, the English historian A. J. P. Taylor wrote the famous first line of The Effects and Origins of the Great War: “Until August 1914 a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state, beyond the post office and the policeman.”
You will be hard to pressed to find post offices or policemen in England now, but just try and go a day without having some interface, usually unwelcome, with your government. This new legislation, particularly if you have a dissident online presence in the UK, will shortly ensure that you have far more.
Calling this very ominous legislative instrument the “Online Safety Bill” is a familiar government ruse intended to make opposition to its passing an apparent opposition to safety itself, particularly that of children. In fact, this proposed legislation represents a reinforcement of a draft version, which the press release says it has “strengthened with a new list of criminal content for tech firms to remove as a priority.”
In passing, here is confirmation, if needed, that Big Tech is now essentially a governmental sub-contractor, a very powerful non-governmental organization the political class outsource to as their provisional wing, a malicious example of what the British used to call PPEs, or public/private enterprises. Big Tech is now the Man from MiniTru. And the OSB is also a flick of the riding-crop on Big Tech’s rump: “Previously the firms would have been forced to take such content down after it had been reported to them by users but now they must be proactive and prevent people being exposed in the first place.”
It is quite a statement. A government is telling private companies not to listen to its audience, but to listen to them.
The OSB includes many things that are already illegal, but these are distractions from the online activity the government is actually going after. Dan Milmo is the rather unnecessarily named “Global Technology Editor” at The Guardian, and in a piece on the OSB he notes that it has been revised from its draft version to make clearer exactly what it is that is being criminalized, or at least having its criminal status aligned with online communication. As he writes: “The DCMS [The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, none of which should be controlled in any way by government] has published an updated list of . . . content, which includes: revenge porn; promoting suicide; people smuggling; drug and weapons dealing; hate crime; fraud; encouraging suicide.”
They seem particularly keen on suicide, mentioning it twice, and this reminds me of another aspect of Big Tech collusion with government taken from my own experience.
I have a lifetime ban from Twitter which I incurred during a spat with a Leftist, in the days before I had learned that constructive conversation is not in the Left’s repertoire. It was a bad-tempered joust. I proposed that my opponent seemed genuinely unhappy, and I suggested that, when he hung himself, he used a brand-new silk tie, because it would promote his legend better than if he were found dangling from some thrift store, 1980s-style skinny necktie that cost a dollar. I wasn’t familiar with the gentleman’s Twitter profile, and it transpired that he was a (self-described) manic depressive.
Now, my wisecrack may have been in questionable taste, but that’s what humor is for me. I like it to be two-fisted. Anyway, my ban was immediate and total, but the point I was edging towards is that Twitter don’t actually delete your account; it becomes “permanently suspended.” That would be as in “suspended animation” until such time as a government department somewhere might require some past indiscretion. Under the OSB, for example. I don’t see any statute of limitations in the new draft, and I am sure Twitter would be happy to assist.
Returning to the OSB’s minutiae, the promotion of defined activity features prominently. People smuggling, drugs and guns, fraud — these are all identifiable things and events from the real, objective world. Then there is “hate crime.”
The problem with “hate crime” is that although it lacks a legal definition, it is smuggled through with more concrete and defined concerns. In the section on new offenses, the categories are divided into two. The first is a “genuinely threatening” communications offense, where communications are sent “to convey a threat of serious harm.” The compilers of the report seem particularly proud of the fact that this “will offer better protection for public figures such as MPs, celebrities or footballers who receive extremely harmful messages threatening their safety.”
It seems to me that this is covered by the Public Order Act of 1986, which states that an offense has been committed if a person “displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting” — but mine is not a legally trained mind.
But it is the second category which introduces what we might call “usable ambiguity.” A new offense, the paper states,
will make it easier to prosecute online abusers by abandoning the requirement under the old offences for content to fit within proscribed yet ambiguous categories such as ‘grossly indecent’, ‘obscene’ or ‘indecent’. Instead it is based on the intended psychological harm, amounting to at least serious distress, to the person who receives the communication, rather than requiring proof that harm was caused. [italics added]
This last sentence dispenses with “proof” of “proscribed yet ambiguous categories” and shifts its ground instead to that hallmark of the (post-) modern, “psychological harm.”
Again, I thought this was already covered, this time by the Malicious Communications Act of 1988, but in fact this is a perfect example of reengineering legislation. The 1988 Act finds an offense has been committed if, firstly, a communication has been sent under categories which include electronic transmission and containing the following:
- A message which is indecent or grossly offensive.
- A threat, or
- Information which is false and known or believed to be false by the sender.
Although the 1988 Act goes on to consider the causing of “distress or anxiety to the recipient,” this reaction is measured against what the 2022 OSB is calling “proscribed yet ambiguous categories” fit only to be discarded. The checks and balances formerly provided by legal definition are thus being replaced by the unquantifiable measure of “psychological harm,” which requires no proof. As always in these times of destabilization, emotio is allowed to outrank ratio.
The OSB specifically and explicitly does away with these categories, and we are left in the now familiar situation of the perception of grievance, upset, or threat by the receiver of the communication rather than the weighing of these responses against existing objective categories whose presence can be proved or otherwise in a court of law. The British are used to this after 1999’s MacPherson Report on the death of London black teenager Stephen Lawrence. This report stated that any incident was deemed racist if the “victim” felt it to be so, or any third party. Presumably, this third party could be your protective mother or another gang member. It’s all about how people feel about things, not what they are and are agreed to be.
The whole idea of replacing objective evidence of harmful online content with subjective perception and its attendant degree of psychological harm makes meaning rudderless and subject to whim. What if I were to write a barbed e-mail to my ex-girlfriend, rich in expletives and full of home truths aggressively expressed, and she read it and snorted with laughter, pausing only to have a good laugh about it with her new boyfriend before deleting it? As I intended to cause distress, have I committed a crime even though none was caused? Or suppose my e-mail was mild and rather affectionate, although it did inform my ex that I had slept with her sister. Does she then put on her tragedienne mask and go out to look for a police station to report a hate crime and online abuse, because she is so upset? If emotio is given precedence over ratio when crafting legal legislation, then the criminal law becomes mere mood music.
The government’s wily use of language in the OSB is, as always, worth forensic inspection. Nadine Dorries, boss of the DCMS and described rather appropriately as “Digital Secretary,” writes: “This government said it would legislate to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online while enshrining free speech.”
Enshrining. A shrine is where people gather to remember something or someone long dead, a place for a devotional visit, no more. A shrine might contain the bones of a saint, or some object, some synecdoche to represent what he once was. So, no, Ms. Dorries is not lying. The government really does want to enshrine free speech. It just has to kill it first, and the OSB isn’t done yet.
Besides the strategic vagueness of “psychological harm” or, as the press release also phrases it, “ruining people’s lives,” there is a very explicit type of online thoughtcrime which interests the new lawmakers. Here, as well as seeing what worries the government as a narrative spoiler, we see every ideologue’s old and trusted friend, moral equivalence: “The new communications offences will strengthen protections from harmful online behaviors such as coercive and controlling behavior by domestic abusers; threats to rape, kill and inflict physical violence; and deliberately sharing dangerous disinformation about hoax Covid treatments.”
Dante himself may have struggled to decide into which circle of Hell to cast those people who posted about Ivermectin. If that is you, the British government have shown you the type of company they consider you to keep.
Virtual worlds are strange places, and it is often possible to do there what you could not do as an individual in the real world. For Big Tech — now with added Western governmental influence — the whole thing is a herding exercise. Mark Zuckerberg’s attempt to corral everyone into a virtual “metaverse” featuring other bores and what looks even to my untrained eye like amateurish, sub-video-game graphics has not gone well. Violent sexual assault has already started there, so that will add some realism in case folk miss the real world too much.
But the UK government, one among many, is attempting to herd us all into another virtual world, one in which you can have fun connecting with others and going where you want to go and being who you want to be, right up until the moment you go to jail. And where once Britain’s judicial system was answerable to the law, blind and detached, the Roman law which has rumbled on for so many centuries — refining itself, improving itself — is now in the hands of a frighteningly small group of powerful and ideologically-driven elites, ably supported by an army of useful idiots.
I can’t find the original, but British journalist Julie Burchill quotes the late Christopher Hitchens to the effect that cultural and political movements are composed of a large number of silly people led by a small group of sinister people. That certainly seems to describe where we are now in the West, as a numerically slight cadre of politicians lead us by the nose via legislation, while their more gormless ground troops in the civil services, the universities, the authorities and armed services, and the public sector in general enforce the new regime.
I note that many on the Right are frustrated that a nominally Conservative UK government should come down so hard on free speech, something that should be a core principle for them in a country unguarded by a First Amendment. But why should they care about the loss of such a liberty when it is the only luxury they can’t themselves enjoy? The three categories mentioned in the OSB as beneficiaries of the protection the Bill seeks to afford are MPs, celebrities, and footballers. These people have no freedom of speech, far less than we do, and the Klieg lights of the media are trained on them at all times for potential “gaffes.” Of course they don’t care if the little people go to jail for voicing an opinion. MPs have to spend every day clinging to the guard rail of the gravy train, scared to death that they might tweet the wrong thing and lose their grip.
Mill’s Cornish gentleman got 21 months for his anti-Christian mutterings and scrawlings in 1857. Under the OSB, making its way through Parliament as I write in February 2022, those convicted of a “hate crime” face up to two years. It is just as well that light sentencing and early release are in fashion, because the UK government is going to need those cells.
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I remember being struck by that passage from Taylor’s book many years ago. I believe it was Taylor’s book (or perhaps Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory) where I also learned something like “An Englishman could cross the channel and walk across Europe without ever being asked to identify himself,” since “passports” existed only in brutally repressive non-western lands like Imperial Russia (where “passports” were required to travel from village to village). The requirement of passports was “for the duration” of the war, but of course proved too convenient for the government to be repealed.
An example of how “temporary” regulations tend to endure, and even become normalized. I think Fussell gives the example of the famous “closing times” in British pubs, another WWI “temporary” regulation supposedly to discourage workers and soldiers from drinking, by closing pubs at odd hours throughout the day. Note the idea of controlling the working class, and how it still remains (US prohibition foolishly tried to even control the upper classes, so failed).
A few years earlier I had been struck by the opening of Steppenwolf, where the protagonist arrives at a new lodging and asks his landlady to indulge him by not notifying the local authorities; apparently in this unnamed but Germanic locale (possibly Zurich) anyone arriving in town has to register with said local authorities. Today, the Austrian authorities are going one step better, and going door to door to demand to see vaccine passports. Soon perhaps yellow stars will be required.
“‘Gifts from Germany’? Oh great, Braunschweiger, cars with heaters that don’t work, and identity papers.” — MST3k. Even Minnesota liberals in 1999 thought the idea was laughable, today not so much.
Excellent article. Thanks for talking about Mill, the best, or at least my favorite, of the 19th Century English philosophers. Also, it was nice to see someone talk about “On Liberty” which is my favorite book of Mill’s. “Utilitarianism” seems designed to put people to sleep. It’s been many years since I read “On Liberty” but I especially remember the part where he says that you should always be prepared to defend your views with someone who disagrees with you. Either you or right or you are wrong. If you are right, you should be able to convince your opponent that he is wrong, and moreover you might even think of a better defense of the point at issue. If you are wrong, you should be able to recognize this and change your mind and embrace the truth. Another good book by Mill is his Autobiography. What an education he was given by his father James Mill. I believe he started learning Greek when he was 3 years old and by the time he was 7 he had read all of Plato’s dialogues.
I think the entire current left is defined by a conspiracy theory – the international white conspiracy responsible for every global adverse event
Conspiracy Theory actually has 2 meanings. The first is a crazy off the wall idea with no empirical support like “Neil Armstrong never walked on the moon.” The second is to be understood in terms of the two words “conspiracy” and “theory”. “Conspiracy” is simply 2 or more people plotting and maybe executing an evil act or a crime. “Theory” is simply an explanation. In this sense of the term, I believe in the JFK conspiracy theory as I have read extensively on the assassination and have concluded that Oswald was not the only shooter who fired 3 and only 3 shots from behind. There is an enormous amount of evidence to back this up. See especially James Douglas’ book “JFK and the Unspeakable”.
Paul McCartney killed Brian Epstein before killing himself.
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