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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


Is the UK government planning to regulate online content?

Posted by James Hammerton @ 1:53 am on 8 November, 2008.
Categories freedom of speech, British politics.
Edit This Permalink to this article

[Hat tip: Guy Herbert writing at Samizdata]


  • This recent report from the Royal Television Society conference:

    Answering questions from the floor at the Royal Television Society conference in London last month, Minister for Truth Andy Burnham said:

    “The time has come for perhaps a different approach to the internet. I want to even up that see-saw, even up the regulation [imbalance] between the old and the new.”

    The idea that the internet was “beyond legal reach” and a “space where governments can’t go” was no longer the case.

    In his final annual lecture for Ofcom last week Lord Currie expressed a belief that tighter regulation was coming. He said: “Ask most legislators today and, where they think about it, they will say that period [of forbearance] is coming to an end.”

    His comments are not so much a call for a new role for Ofcom as a recognition that such a role may be coming. A spokesperson for Ofcom added that decisions would need to be taken by the government, particularly as to where any new regulatory responsibility would lie.

    Ofcom is not pitching for such responsibility. Rather it is highlighting the importance of issues that are likely to arise from this new government direction.

    One such issue is just how practical it would be to put in place any form of regulation based on site – or even page – classification.

    According to Andy Burnham, the introduction of a ratings system for internet content would not be “over-burdensome”. We have asked the Ministry of Truth (aka Department for Culture, Media and Sport) on several occasions how such a system might work and how its Minister’s view that such regulation would be easy to implement could be squared
    with general consensus that it would be unworkable. Or, as one expert put it: “bonkers”. We asked again last week.

    The Ministry did not feel they could elucidate further. A spokesperson explained that as the UK Council for Child Safety on the Internet had only just been set up, and would be making recommendations about regulating the internet in due course, “it wouldn’t be helpful or appropriate for us to speculate about what those recommendations might

  • This report about a possible power grab for a company at the centre of the UK’s internet infrastructure:

    Ministers led by Peter Mandelson are considering a power grab at the independent company at the centre of UK’s internet infrastructure, The Register can reveal.

    Mandelson’s Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR) has asked Nominet, which is in charge of the registry, to justify its independence from Whitehall.

    In a letter dated October 15, senior civil servant David Hendon, BERR’s Director of Business Relations, asked Nominet chairman Bob Gilbert: “What arguments would you employ to convince my Ministers that the present relationship between government and the company is appropriate in ensuring that public policy objectives in relation to the management of the domain name system and the standing of the UK in the internet community are understood and taken into account?”

  • Hazel Blears MP’s recent article attacking bloggers (and other commentators) at Comment is Free:

    But with the caveat that politicians always complain about their own political culture, let me say that we are witnessing a dangerous corrosion in our political culture, on a scale much more profound than previous ages, and the role of the media must be examined in this context.

    Famously, Tony Blair called the media a “feral beast” in one of his last speeches as prime minister. But behind the eye-catching phrase was a serious and helpful analysis of a 24-hour broadcast media and shrinking, and increasingly competitive, newspaper market which demands more impact from its reporting – not the reporting of facts to enable citizens to make sense of the world, but the translation of every political discussion into a row, every difficulty a crisis, every rocky patch for the prime minister the “worst week ever”.

    The changing structure of the media is what drives this desire for impact and the retreat from dispassionate reporting.

    And I would single out the rise of the commentariat as especially note-worthy. It is within living memory that journalists’ names started to appear in newspapers; before then, no name was attached to articles. And in recent years commentary has taken over from investigation or news reporting, to the point where commentators are viewed by some as every bit as important as elected politicians, with views as valid as cabinet ministers. And if you can wield influence and even power, without ever standing for office or being held to account by an electorate, it further undermines our democracy.

    The commentariat operates without scrutiny or redress. They cannot be held to account for their views, even when they perform the most athletic and acrobatic of flip-flops in the space of a few weeks. I can understand when commentators disagree with each other; it’s when they disagree with themselves we should worry.

    There will always be a role for political commentary, providing perspective, illumination and explanation. But editors need to do more to disentangle it from news reporting, and to allow elected politicians the same kind of prominent space for comment as people who have never stood for office.

    This brings me to the role of political bloggers. Perhaps because of the nature of the technology, there is a tendency for political blogs to have a Samizdat style. The most popular blogs are rightwing, ranging from the considered Tory views of Iain Dale, to the vicious nihilism of Guido Fawkes. Perhaps this is simply anti-establishment. Blogs have only existed under a Labour government. Perhaps if there was a Tory government, all the leading blogs would be left-of-centre?

    There are some informative and entertaining political blogs, including those written by elected councillors. But mostly, political blogs are written by people with a disdain for the political system and politicians, who see their function as unearthing scandals, conspiracies and perceived hypocrisy.

    Unless and until political blogging adds value to our political culture, by allowing new and disparate voices, ideas and legitimate protest and challenge, and until the mainstream media reports politics in a calmer, more responsible manner, it will continue to fuel a culture of cynicism and despair.

Could it be that the government does not like being subjected to the scrutiny that many bloggers and commentators now provide?

I intend to write a direct response to Blears’ article later. In the meantime, below are links to some of the online responses to Blears’ article:

On the consequences of the European Arrest Warrant

Update: In the original version of this article, I wrote that the European Arrest Warrant allows for extradition to take place if the offence is punishable by 1 year or more in prison in the country requesting extradition. This is only true if the offence exists in both jurisdictions, i.e. if dual criminality applies. As section 64(2) of the Extradition Act 2003 makes clear, extradition where there is no dual criminality requires the offence to be punishable by 3 years or more in prison. I have altered the article to correct this. Apologies for the mistake.

On the 1st October, Dr Frederick Toben, an Australian citizen, landed at Heathrow Airport whilst on a journey from America to Dubai.

He did not complete that journey.

Instead, he was arrested via a European Arrest Warrant, on a charge of ‘holocaust denial’, at the behest of the German government.

I strongly disagree with this man’s views, but he has as much right to express his views as I do. I am opposed to making holocaust denial an offence for the simple reason that it is contrary to freedom of expression. I also think it is wrong to prevent people, by law, from expressing scepticism or doubt about the generally accepted accounts of an historical events, since there is no guarantee that those accounts have managed to capture all the evidence surrounding those events or evaluate it fully and objectively. The best guarantee one can have is to allow people to make their arguments and to test each other’s arguments. Outlawing the expression of points of view that are in opposition to an officially accepted view means you hinder further advances in knowledge about the subject matter, not because the outlawed points of view are correct but because the debates and challenges that arise from allowing them to be expressed may lead to new insights or new evidence being discovered. Making an official point of view sacrosant turns history into dogma.

But this case is not merely about freedom of speech, or freedom of historical enquiry. It is also about the rule of law, and there are no British laws against holocaust denial.

So why has Toben been arrested? Because:

  • Toben runs a website that denies the holocaust happened.
  • Britain signed up to the European Arrest Warrant (EAW), which allows for fast-track extradition between EU states without any evidence being presented to the courts of the country performing the extradition and where there is no requirement that the conduct be an offence in both countries. The conduct needs only to be an offence in the country requesting extradition, so long as the offence falls into one of a broadly defined set of categories, and is punishable by 3 years or more in prison; Toben is apparently facing upto 5 years in a German prison.
  • With the internet, many countries, Britain included, are applying the principle that once someone downloads material in a particular jurisdiction (e.g. by reading a web page with their browser), that material has been published in that jurisdiction. Germany will therefore be claiming that Toben’s website has been published in Germany, even though he runs it from Australia, where there are also no laws making holocaust denial an offence, and thus that Toben committed an offence falling under the “Racism and Xenophobia” category that enabled them to request extradition under the EAW in the first place.

If Toben is extradited, then it will confirm that anyone (who is accused of) publishing, on the internet, any articles questioning the holocaust could be extradited to Germany from any other EU country without their local courts even getting a chance to see any evidence against them, regardless of whether their internet publications were legal in their own country or the country where the website is run from.

More generally, it means that one’s internet publications are effectively subject to the union of all the laws applying in the EU, where the offence is punishable by 3 or more years in prison, and which fall under the “Racism and Xenophobia” banner or any of the other 31 categories (e.g. “computer-related crime”), and you could be extradited to any other EU state on the accusation that your publication violated those laws. Anyone living in or travelling through any EU country can potentially be targetted with this legislation.

Google mapping Britain’s erosion of civil liberties

[Hat tip: UK Liberty]

This looks like an interesting project

Telegraph: Council officials told to question adults in public park without children

Posted by James Hammerton @ 9:53 pm on 9 September, 2008.
Categories political liberties, freedom of speech, British politics, culture of suspicion.
Edit This Permalink to this article

Update: UK Liberty has some good commentary on this story.

Fancy going for a stroll in a public park? Apparently, if you do so in the Telford and Wreckin council area, and fail to bring any children with you, you may find yourself questioned about what you’re doing and asked to leave, ostensibly in order to protect children from paedophiles. The Telegraph reports:

The policy came to light after two environmental campaigners dressed as penguins were thrown out of Telford Town Park when caught handing out leaflets on climate change.

Rachel Whittaker and Neil Donaldson, of the Wrekin Stop War pressure group, were told they had to leave the park because they had not undergone Criminal Records Bureau checks or risk assessments before being allowed near children.

David Ottley, Telford & Wrekin’s sports and recreation manager, said in a letter to them: “Our Town Park staff approach adults that are not associated with any children in the Town Park and request the reason for them being there.”

“In particular, this applies to those areas where children or more vulnerable groups gather, such as play facilities and the entrances to play areas.”

However Miss Whittaker, 34, said: “I’m outraged that my concern for the planet and for the future of all children can be turned into petty bureaucracy.

“It is dangerous as well as frightening people, it could start a hysterical society and punishes people who have done nothing wrong while giving an outlet for those with sinister motives a way of getting around it.

“I think they are reacting to what was is essence an expression to public expression of free speech - and how many child molesters dress up as penguins anyway?”

And so the culture of suspicion marches on…

China sentences elderly women to “reeducation through labour” for asking for permission to protest

[Hat tip: The Pub Philosopher]

Lindsey Hilsum, reporting for Channel 4 News:

I’m trying to put myself in the mind of the official from the Beijing Municipal Government who decided to send 79-year-old Mrs Wu and her 77-year-old neighbour Mrs Wang to the labour camp.

Maybe it was the way they wielded their walking sticks which made him decide they were “disturbing public order”.

The two women have applied five times for permission to protest in the designated Olympic Protest Zones; when they refused to give up, they were sentenced to one year’s “re-education through labour”.

NO2ID Nine: All charges dropped.

See my personal blog.

Freedom of speech roundup

There have been a number of freedom of speech related stories recently that I’ve only just got round to covering, ranging from the UN Human Rights Council’s recent decision to gather information about “abuses” of freedom of speech to a prominent British blog being sued by an individual connected to Hamas. All over the world it seems to me that freedom of speech is being attacked. The details of these recent stories can be found below:


Loss of liberties in the US since 9/11

One of the things I’d like to do with this blog is to shift it towards being less UK-centric. This is difficult given the sheer volume of anti-civil liberties legislation being generated in the UK, but occasionally I do get a chance to cover some non-UK material. For example, this website is dedicated to documenting the loss of civil liberties in the USA since 9/11. I’ve not yet read it in detail but it may be of interest to readers wishing to catch up on the US situation and/or compare it to the UK or elsewhere.

Why civil libertarians should back Davis’s re-election

Earlier I wrote an article arguing that David Davis’s resignation and by-election campaign opened up an opportunity to alter the political climate to be more friendly to civil liberties. I’ve seen various arguments put forward attacking Davis’s campaign, from people committed to civil liberties, and this article is a response to them. The arguments I’ve seen are as follows:

  1. It’s a safe Tory seat, and the second placed party is not standing anyone against him, so Davis is bound to win and therefore it’s not important. One person arguing this suggested the logical vote is therefore simply to stay at home.
  2. Davis’s record on civil liberties is not perfect and/or other candidates have stronger stances on civil liberties, so we should back them instead.
  3. It’s just a stunt from a politician seeking attention.

Below I tackle each of these points in turn and argue that:

  • Davis has already done the cause of civil liberties some service in helping reposition the Tory party and, with his resignation, in generating debate and publicity about the erosion of civil liberties.
  • If we’re to avoid a potential set-back on civil liberties, we need to ensure Davis is returned with more votes than he won last time round, and with a decent turnout.


Nine NO2ID protestors arrested in Edinburgh

On Monday, 9 protestors, including me, all involved with the NO2ID campaign, were arrested in Edinburgh and charged with breach of the peace.

You can see some reports and discussion about this at the following links:

This STV report
This report in the Herald
This BBC Scotland report
A thread on NO2ID’s forums
Guy Herbert’s Samizdata article
Another thread on NO2ID’s forums

At this time, I’ll make the following points:

  • we were all peaceful at all times during the protest
  • only 1 protestor sneaked into the meeting. Geraint Bevan, the coordinator of NO2ID Scotland got into the meeting at the start under the cunning ruse of walking up to the registration desk and claiming to be one of the people named on the badges on display.
  • prior to entering the hotel, we were protesting peacefully outside, causing curiosity, amusement and the occasional message of support from the passing public.
  • when the hotel manager approached us and asked us to leave, Geraint (by this time physically thrown out of the meeting) asked if it were OK for us to leave after STV had conducted an interview with him. The manager agreed.
  • when the interview was over, we made to leave immediately, only to find the police had been called. At no point prior to this were we given any intimation the police were called or were going to be called. Prior to the hotel manager asking us to leave, we were not told by any member of staff that we should leave.
  • when we entered, we entered peacefully, quietly, carrying placards, with an STV camera crew in tow. The people at the head of our procession did not wear masks.
  • we were officially arrested at 12.30 (after a considerable length of time when the police took our details).
  • we regard this charge as a ridiculous jumped up charge.
  • we will be fighting this charge.
  • Geraint faces a separate charge related to events in the meeting. This will also be fought.
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