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This page provides occasional items, linked to the original articles, as we attempt to keep up with the rapidly changing situation on civil liberties.
Archive of old news service:
2002 - 2004

1st Jan to 9th Sept 2005

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Summary of Leveson proposals

Over at my personal blog I’ve summarised how the new press regulator proposed by the Leveson inquiry would work.

MPs call for default internet censorship of “adult” content that you have to opt out of

Posted by James Hammerton @ 10:21 pm on 18 April, 2012.
Categories freedom of speech, British politics, censorship.
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The BBC reports:

The inquiry said that internet service providers (ISPs) and the government should work together to draw up guidelines to make it clearer to parents what safety settings were available on their home computers and other internet-enabled devices.

And:

Other recommendations included:

  • A government review of an opt-in filter to access adult material on the internet
  • Accelerated implementation of content-filtering system Active Choice for new internet customers
  • ISPs to roll out within 12 months network filters that provide one-click filtering for all devices connected to the same internet account
  • Public wi-fi networks to have a default adult-content bar

The report itself can be accessed here, and clearly favours a system where you have to opt-in to see what the filters deem to be “adult” content (which means you have to opt out of the censorship) and calls for the government to run a consultation on the idea.

It seems to me that:

  • In a free, democratic society, adults should not be required to opt out of censorship of otherwise legal material.
  • Once you have “network level” filters that censor out adult content by default, then assuming the filters work, you have built an infrastructure that can be easily (ab)used for censorship per se in place.
  • It is far better to educate parents and guardians about what tools are available to help with supervising children’s access to the net than it is to implement such filtering.
  • If this goes ahead, it will inevitably be worked around by those who know how and it will inevitably block content that should not be blocked.

See also: The Open Rights Ggroup’s press release on these proposals.

Shutting down social media is the wrong approach

Posted by James Hammerton @ 5:48 pm on 14 August, 2011.
Categories freedom of speech, British politics.
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British Prime Minister David Cameron, speaking in response to the London riots, said:

Free flow of information can be used for good. But it can also be used for ill.

And when people are using social media for violence we need to stop them.

So we are working with the Police, the intelligence services and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality.

Tory MP Louise Mensch proposes having a “kill switch” to temporarily switch off social media sites during riots. The Guardian reports:

Mensch, the MP for Corby and East Northamptonshire and a novelist, used Twitter to call for a “brief temporary shutdown” of Twitter and Facebook to stop unfounded rumours being spread, as she said had occurred in Northamptonshire last week during the riots that spread from London to several cities across England.

It seems to me that such a measure would be counter productive, as well as being an attack on freedom of speech of those legitimately using social media when it gets shut off as proposed. There are several reasons for this:

  • By shutting down a communication service being used by suspected rioters, the police would be depriving themselves of valuable intelligence that could be used to preempt the rioters or subsequently to prosecute the rioters.
  • The social media also enable those trying to avoid the rioters and those concerned about each other to keep in touch, give each other advice, and reassure friends and relatives that they’re OK. Shutting down such services will hamper innocent people’s abilities to keep clear of the riots and increase pressure on more traditional services such as the phone system.
  • The likely response of those using social media to organise riots will simply be to choose other means such as email, text messages, phones, news groups, etc, thus making the approach ineffective unless you’re going to try shutting down communications in general, which would involve even more collateral damage in terms of people’s ability to avoid or counter the rioters, or otherwise carry on with their lives. Also it’s not as if it’s beyond the wit of people to organise riots via coded messages or even without using social media at all.
  • The existence of such a power would be a serious temptation for an unscrupulous government to abuse in order to distrupt attempts to organise peaceful protests or other peaceful means of political opposition to its policies.

It would be far better for the police and security services to have the capability to monitor the social media during a riot in order to keep one step ahead of the rioters and figure out who they are and where they’re going. There are civil liberties aspects to this too, but so long as the powers were kept specifically for riots, this would seem less open to abuse than the “kill switch”.

Finally, it seems to me that the use of social media by rioters is unlikely to have been crucial to the temporary loss of control of the streets in the first place. That was more down to failures of police tactics in the early stages of the riots, failures which were soon corrected.

Be careful what you tweet in jest or frustration

Posted by James Hammerton @ 5:39 pm on 6 June, 2010.
Categories freedom of speech, British politics, culture of suspicion.
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David Mery reports on the case of Paul Chambers who tweeted “Crap! Robin Hood Airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together, otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!” in frustration at the possible disruption to his travel plans. This resulted in him being fined £1000.

Some recent freedom of speech stories

Posted by James Hammerton @ 10:53 pm on 15 May, 2010.
Categories freedom of speech, British politics.
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Update: This story also highlights how far freedom of speech has been weakened. The police barged into a man’s house and handcuffed him in order to remove a poster he had up in his window calling David Cameron a “wanker”.

Freedom of speech was attacked by the previous Labour government in various ways, both of the following stories illustrates the legacy they’ve left on this issue:

A man was given an ASBO, community service and a suspended jail sentence for putting leaflets mocking Jesus, the Pope and Islam in an airport prayer room.

A christian preacher was arrested for claiming that homosexuality is a sin.

In both cases, it seems to me that merely saying something or distributing literature that someone takes offence to is being punished. I may disagree with the views being expressed here, but the individuals concerned should have the right to peacefully express those views to anyone willing to listen.

The new coalition government has promised to review libel laws to protect freedom of speech. They should also review the public order legislation to protect the right to peaceful expression of one’s views.

Britain’s coalition government promises to strengthen civil liberties

From Section 10 of the coalition agreement between the Tories and the Liberal Democrats:

The parties agree to implement a full programme of measures to reverse the substantial erosion of civil liberties under the Labour Government and roll back state intrusion.

This will include:

  • A Freedom or Great Repeal Bill.
  • The scrapping of ID card scheme, the National Identity register, the next generation of biometric passports and the Contact Point Database.
  • Outlawing the finger-printing of children at school without parental permission.
  • The extension of the scope of the Freedom of Information Act to provide greater transparency.
  • Adopting the protections of the Scottish model for the DNA database.
  • The protection of historic freedoms through the defence of trial by jury.
  • The restoration of rights to non-violent protest.
  • The review of libel laws to protect freedom of speech.
  • Safeguards against the misuse of anti-terrorism legislation.
  • Further regulation of CCTV.
  • Ending of storage of internet and email records without good reason.
  • A new mechanism to prevent the proliferation of unnecessary new criminal offences.

If they’re as good as their word, this will be a promising start to ending and reversing the onslaught on civil liberties Britain has seen over the last 15 to 20 years or so.

British government reforms of English libel law

Posted by James Hammerton @ 7:41 pm on 9 January, 2010.
Categories political liberties, freedom of speech, British politics.
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Last year, the Guardian reported:

Signalling his desire for reforms, Straw insisted that the changes can be introduced “without the need for primary legislation”.

Straw highlighted the plans amid concern at the way huge payouts awarded to claimants are attracting “libel tourists” to Britain, and what the minister described as the “chilling effect” of existing libel laws on democracy.

The government’s decision to look again at the libel system follows threats by overseas publishers to abandon sales in the UK because of the fear of libel.

In an interview in tomorrow’s New Statesman magazine, Straw says the rise of “no-win no-fee” arrangements threatens free speech by making it prohibitively expensive for publishers to defend themselves.

Research by Oxford University has revealed that the cost of a defending a libel action in England and Wales is now 140 times greater than the average in other European countries, according to the New Statesman.

Straw added: “Our libel laws are having a chilling effect. By definition, it’s not hitting the most profitable international media groups, News International or Associated Newspapers and so on, though it’s not good news for them.

“It is hitting the press that is vital to our democracy but whose finances are much more difficult, and that includes magazines, one or two of the nationals, and regional and local newspapers, and it’s really bad for them. That’s why I will be changing the law on defamation costs.”

Whilst reducing the payouts may help, it seems to me that reforming it to place the onus the proving the libel on the prosecution, rather than the defence would be a better way to approach this issue.

Atheist Ireland Publishes 25 Blasphemous Quotes

To launch their campaign for the repeal of a new Irish law that criminalises blasphemy, Atheist Ireland have published 25 blasphemous quotations:

From today, 1 January 2010, the new Irish blasphemy law becomes operational, and we begin our campaign to have it repealed. Blasphemy is now a crime punishable by a €25,000 fine. The new law defines blasphemy as publishing or uttering matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby intentionally causing outrage among a substantial number of adherents of that religion, with some defences permitted.

This new law is both silly and dangerous. It is silly because medieval religious laws have no place in a modern secular republic, where the criminal law should protect people and not ideas. And it is dangerous because it incentives religious outrage, and because Islamic States led by Pakistan are already using the wording of this Irish law to promote new blasphemy laws at UN level.

We believe in the golden rule: that we have a right to be treated justly, and that we have a responsibility to treat other people justly. Blasphemy laws are unjust: they silence people in order to protect ideas. In a civilised society, people have a right to to express and to hear ideas about religion even if other people find those ideas to be outrageous.

Trafigura gags the BBC

Posted by James Hammerton @ 2:26 pm on 19 December, 2009.
Categories freedom of speech, British politics.
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Richard Wilson writes:

Late last week the BBC chose to delete from its website a damning Newsnight investigation into the Trafigura scandal, following legal threats from the company and its controversial lawyers, Carter-Ruck.

Previously, other media outlets including the Times and the Independent, had withdrawn stories about the case, amid concerns that the UK press is choosing to engage in self-censorship, rather than risk a confrontation with such a powerful company in the UK’s archaic and one-sided libel courts.

The BBC is a dominant player within the UK media, and its independence – supposedly guaranteed by the millions it receives from licence-payers each year – is vital both to its public service function and its global reputation.

Freedom of speech means very little without an effective and independent media – if it’s true that the BBC’s independence can so easily be compromised by legal threats, then this sets a very dangerous precedent for the future.

The mainstream UK media has so far assiduously avoided reporting on the BBC’s climbdown. Yet it’s an issue that raises serious questions about the state of press freedom in Britain, at a time of unprecedented attacks on the media.

To help subvert this latest attempt to muzzle the press, please embed this video on your blog, and link to this PDF of the original story.


Libel reform campaign petition

Posted by James Hammerton @ 5:57 pm on 13 December, 2009.
Categories freedom of speech, British politics.
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A petition for reforming England’s libel laws has been created by the Libel Reform Campaign. I’ve already signed it, I urge others to do so too.

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