If it weren’t for you meddling kids

Governments love sheep. They adore compliant leggy clouds of wool flocking after them for a sniff of fresh grass. They like to funnel them through the dip for a fungicidal top-up, and wave a pair of clippers at them for a nice shear now and then. And they love to sell them off to Tesco, pocket the cash, and feast on their minty legs.

It’s an old joke: teaching is great, apart from all the students. System administration would be a breeze if not for those damned users. And government would be easy without those pesky citizens demanding rights and freedoms.

Last week’s G8 and eG8 meetings should get us worried. Do not be fooled: the rhetoric about freedom and innovation and unlimited rice pudding is simply designed to give us the warm’n’fuzzies. Yes, we’re supposed to think, they get it. The net is safe! Hooray! Baa! Baa!

The truth is far more sinister. It’s a classic “I love you, but…”. The net is full of lawlessness, of copyright infringement, the governments say, and they want to do something about it.

And again, don’t be fooled. “Copyright” is a trigger word: it polarises, it rehearses the same old arguments from both camps, it focuses the debate on one, narrow aspect. It ensures that big media, the copyright barons, are on the government’s side. It brings out the Cliff Richardses, claiming imminent destitution while dabbing eyes with local Caribbean onions.

Who could deny these artists a living wage? emotes a minister, justifying stricter net regulation on the basis of copyright infringement before nipping off to rip a CD onto an iPod, an act still considered infringement in English law despite now two government-commissioned reports recommending legalisation.

Governments are slow to increase freedoms and quick to reduce them.

But, as I said, don’t be fooled. The copyright thing is a diversion: the government calling “come by” to the media and entertainment sheepdogs and leaving a trail of goodies to distract the noisier lambs.

And it’s not about injunctions, super, hyper or otherwise – though that’s another convenient shiny thing to blind everyone with. Here are two incontrovertible facts:

  • Humans are social animals and love to gossip, even if that’s not what they think they’re doing.
  • Twitter is the most efficient gossip-distribution mechanism yet invented by man.

It thus follows that Twitter radiates gossip around the globe faster than any lawyer can stop it.

But you know what Twitter gossip isn’t? It isn’t doorstepping the people gossiped about. It isn’t rummaging through their bins. It isn’t intercepting their phone messages. It isn’t papping them on the beach and tutting at some tiny variation from this week’s idea of perfection on pages one, two and thirteen. It isn’t publishing lurid details of their private lives on trumped-up notions of public interest.

Privacy invasion and harassment by the redtops – and not just the redtops – is much worse than Twitter gossip for those invaded and harassed: but the government doesn’t legislate about that.

Twitter spreads gossip, some of it true, some of it false, just like email does, and the telephone, and the larynx. And guess what: we already have laws about the false stuff. We already have judges struggling to understand social networking, refusing to recognise tweeted jokes borne of frustration but plainly not menacing.

Twitter is communication, like any other form – but faster and with a global audience. It’s many-to-many, not one-to-one or one-to-many. (And, lest I be accused of undue Twitophilia, so is Facebook.)

This is why G8 governments want to regulate it. This is why they are afraid of it. It is no coincidence that governments have recently woken up to the possibilities of many-to-many. They’ve seen it help to disrupt north Africa and the Middle East all year, and drag them into a civil war none of them want to be a part of but all of them know they must be, thanks to what none of them want to admit: oil. Governments all think: could we be next? What would it take to bring down a western government? It might be on the verge of happening in Greece or Spain.

Governments fear nothing more than their own citizens rising up against them.

This latest shepherding tactic about privacy and copyright is a front, a sleight-of-hand, an attempt to outflank those sheep who sense the approaching knives. I suspect G8 governments believe, like the Romanian communist leaders of the 1980s who ordered the population to hand over their typewriters as they made it easier to disseminate subversive material, that by asserting control over the means of communication they can preserve control over the populace.

Western governments are lumbering beasts but they’re not daft enough to believe they could simply switch off internet and mobile phone services if the people start making too much of a noise, as happened in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. Such an act would only be counterproductive were it even possible, and they’d have to take over the TV stations too. They want subtler control, like mandatory filters. Don’t like this Twitter account? Filter it out. Hashtag chatter a bit near the mark? Filter it out. All “for legal reasons” or for the “protection of children”. It’s all possible: China does it.

But the USA has the first amendment! Free speech! Yes, and that’s a qualified privilege. You can still be prosecuted for crying “fire” in a crowded theatre, or for what someone decides is treasonous speech. Some US legislators and judges believe that linking to a page that contains links to copyright-infringing material should itself be a criminal act. And it seems you can be arrested for dancing at the Jefferson Memorial.

There is nothing to stop a determined government, with a supine or bought legislature, from enacting laws that restrict our freedoms on the internet. There is nothing to stop them: except the people.

I realise it’s easy to see spooks lurking behind every bush, to see malignancy and conspiracy where there is none. Yet history shows that good intentions wither and weather, like rivulets of erosion in the majesty of the Sphinx. RIPA surveillance powers, used to monitor dog fouling. Anti-terrorism laws, used to harass and detain photographers. Laws about “improper use of a public electronic telecommunications network,” used to interpret as “menacing” an obvious joke on Twitter by a frustrated flyer eager to see his girlfriend, and ruining his life in the process.

Governments and their officers, whether deliberately or not, tend to overreach. Powers once taken are hard to let go. Our ancestors fought for our freedoms; they are entrusted to us by our descendants. We hand over those freedoms at our peril.

Or perhaps you believe what the governments say: that regulating the internet is necessary to protect blah, blah, blah. I offer these questions:

  • The internet must be regulated by government, but the press is allowed to regulate itself. Why do you think that is?
  • Do you trust this government? Yes? How about the government after next?

Baa! Baa!


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