Category Archives: free speech

I blame Google

When google comes under attack, I’m usually one of the voices in the peanut gallery defending them.  That’s because most of the attacks on them, particularly the anti-trust stuff involving regulators, is grossly ill-informed and follows an Agenda that seeks to subvert Google’s central purpose of supplying the best possible search results for the person searching.

Now I’m going to attack.  It may be true (as I’ve argued here before) that there’s a certain historic inevitability to the Enclosure of the Commons.  But that doesn’t excuse Google’s crucial role, particularly in the demise of the Usenet commons.

The suicide and resurrection of an online community in which I participate has reminded me of that.  It started on November 3rd, with an an announcement that a set of discussion boards was to close on Nov 17th.  Just two weeks notice: quite a large number of boards and a thriving community. The reason given was problems with old/unmaintainable software (which had indeed left a lot to be desired), but we suspect that the more fundamental reason was that the website (which has, in other areas, a number of paid staff) was losing money.

Why they didn’t try to sell the boards – with community intact – to whomsoever thought they could make a go of it – eludes me.  But that’s now water under the bridge.  And it may be a long-term blessing, if a highest bidder might’ve been under financial pressure themselves and perhaps trashed the site with intrusive levels of advertising.

Of course, discussion turned to ideas for how it might be replaced.  My own preferred option of a decentralised solution – individual blogs with an aggregator to focus the community – was a non-starter on that timescale, even if it could in principle have gained traction in the absence of time pressure.   But someone else had a practical solution: they set up an alternative site at a new domain with well-chosen name, and phpbb driving a replacement set of boards.  They announced it within hours of the closure notice, and rapidly gained traction.  The community has been rapidly migrating to the new site, which now also has tremendous goodwill.  Early days, but it seems we have a level of continuity, albeit with archives about to be relegated to what may be found in dusty attics.

So what has this little tale got to do with Google or Usenet?  Well, the old boards originated in January 1998.  The second half of the ’90s was precisely when lots of websites were making a land-grab for online discussion fora, and a rising non-techie user base would follow the best-advertised route oblivious to inherent limitations like private (often quixotic) control and single points of congestion and failure.  As soon as a community moves from the Usenet commons to the private gardens – walled or otherwise – of a website, it becomes vulnerable to all kinds of things, like a rug being pulled.

Google’s role comes in their own land-grab, and in what they did to Dejanews.  Actually, come to think of it, the first time I ever heard the name Google was in that context: they were a company that had bought Dejanews.  So now the folks who run the fantastic Usenet search engine now also have web search, and … it turns out to be rather good, returning results more-or-less as good as Altavista but without all the clutter and crap that had made Altavista a pain to use.  Nice!

But it turned out to be part of a much more sinister agenda.  Google Groups started life as a WWW gateway to Usenet: all good.  But the waves of new users coming through Google weren’t being told that: they saw web fora, with thriving communities.  If memory serves, it was the whole of Usenet (less some of the wilds of alt.*) that had been hijacked in an audacious land grab.  Old-timers found ourselves fighting a losing battle against the impression that the whole thing was Google’s territory.  Google were far from the only people doing that (and public mailinglists got similar gateways), but they were unique in owning Dejanews.

But Dejanews itself disappeared.  Or rather, became just a tab in an integrated Google search frontend.  Then the tab wasn’t even labelled “news”, which took on the obvious meaning it still has today.  Then the “groups” tab vanished: after all, the content was Google Groups, and that’s just Web content like any other, right?  Over the following decade or so, Usenet content simply vanished, increasingly much of it literally so.

The community mindshare had been grabbed, except for old-timers.  Search had been lost gradually and the community, like a boiling frog, had failed to react to incremental changes and create an alternative.  In the face of such trends, the will to put much effort into other things like newsreader development and combating the rise of spam, also waned.  The land grab has happened, the commons are lost, we live in a world of private gardens.  Worse still, many including the biggest (Facebook) are walled off against us: access is limited to their registered users!  And it’s very largely all Google’s fault.

If I can be arsed I may post a followup to this, proposing a new alternative.  It won’t be Usenet: that ship has sailed.  It will be based on aggregation and syndication of distributed content, under the control of individuals.  Damn, am I fighting the same battle I pooh-poohed Moglen for?

Je suis Voltaire

David Cameron

You disgusting hypocrite

It should go without saying, but let’s say it anyway: I join the rest of the world in condemning the terrorist attack on the French magazine Charlie Hebdo.

I’m not familiar with the publication, and all I know is what’s been reported in the media coverage of the attack.  I’m sure they’ve published offensive things, no doubt often for very good reasons.  Maybe sometimes also gratuitously so, which would be indefensible unless with an apology for poor judgement.  But even if they were completely wrong, nothing justifies gunning them down!

Here in Blighty we were treated to a clip of our beloved Prime Minister expressing sentiments with which we can all agree.  Alas, some of his fine words sit uneasily with his government’s less-than-fine actions.  What I found utterly jarring and what prompts me to comment were his words: “… and we stand squarely for free speech …“.

Ahem …

No you don’t: you have demonstrated that you stand squarely against free speech.  On your government’s watch, people have been imprisoned for having the wrong book, or for being an arse on twitter (the latter looks like a close analogy to the very Free Speech you claim to defend).  Your government shows no signs of rolling back Blair’s police state, but rather looks to extend it, and our culture has moved so far into totalitarianism that a supposedly-serious documentary programme this week on the BBC can be outraged by free speech where it exists elsewhere in the world!

OK, dragging some poor sod through our courts isn’t the same as gunning them down.  That more genteel and sophisticated option isn’t available to private individuals, so while the difference is real, it isn’t a simple case of civilisation vs barbarity.

What a hypocrite!

p.s. There’s another case been in the news recently.  Some footballer who’s been to prison, and whose attempts to return to work have been thwarted by a successful campaign of terror.  That is, real terror: it seems prospective employers have been scared off by credible threats of extreme violence.  Now that situation (of credible threats) is precisely where the State should have a legitimate interest in taking action against the culprit(s).  Will they?

Where’s the difference?

It’s reported (e.g. here) that the Queen’s grandson wants all the royal family’s ivory destroyed.

I am reminded of the Taliban destroying the Bamiyan Buddhas.  The act looks much the same: destroying priceless works of art.  The motivation looks much the same too: the works are founded on something seen as absolutely unacceptable.  Is there a difference?

I heard someone debating this on the radio today.  A lady supporting the Prince’s line put the Endarkenment argument: by owning the ivory, the royal family is complicit in the slaughter of elephants to collect it.  Just as consumers of sex and violence are complicit, and we must be protected from such depravity as Shakespeare …

Hmmm.  Yes, it’s a good link.  A close analogy between policing the ‘net, destroying the ivory, and destroying the Buddhas.


I’ve been on the ‘net a lot longer than you.

Well, that won’t apply to all readers.  This blog is aggregated at Planet Apache, so is likely to cross the feeds of some true veterans.  But I’m sure I’ve been online far longer than any of the politicians or journalists who are getting into another frenzy about online porn and ‘protecting’ the children.  Without getting into the nitty-gritty of what counts as an ancestor of the modern ‘net, I first accessed a computer remotely in 1983, subscribed from home and saw my first online pics (of sorts) in 1987, and got my first access over a ‘net using today’s protocols in 1990.

And in all that time, I’ve never encountered anything I’d describe with any certainty as porn.  The most dodgy material I’ve seen is at the sites of trashy newspapers: specifically the Daily Mail (to which I occasionally follow a link) and Pravda (which I use as a test site when developing internationalisation software like mod_xml2enc).  Both of those seem to bombard me with lots of pics of scantily-clad young people, predominantly female.

And violence?  I don’t read novels online, though I might indulge in occasional dodgy media.  Far and away the most violent content I’ve encountered is music from less politically-correct times, setting words from that ultra-violent text, the Bible.  Blessed is he that taketh the children of the heathen, and casts them upon the stone.

So how is this relevant?  I think it firmly gives the lie to the myth that you can stumble inadvertently on anything nastier than you’d see in your local newsagent or bookshop.  If you want porn, you have to seek it out proactively.  And if you seek proactively I expect you’ll find it, regardless of anything idiot politicians do to try and stop you.

The Rape of Lucretia: Illegal online?

We already have the censor blocking a widening range of contents.  Now apparently we’re to have a whole new raft of Big Brother legislation.  So as a very minor protest, I just googled for contents that will become explicitly illegal.  Tizian’s Rape of Lucretia looks pretty unambiguous: it’s not merely a representation of rape (enough to make it illegal), but true, violent rape!

In fact, I think today’s news just prompted me to seek out the nastiest image I’ve seen in 30 years online.  The further they go in the direction of book-burning and aggressive censorship, the more I shall feel inclined to opt out.  I certainly won’t accept filtering of my ‘net contents while I have any choice[1], and if choosing Shakespeare over Bowdler puts me under suspicion from Big Brother then so be it.

I have no interest in porn (and 30 years to prove it), but now legislating to make it ‘impossible’ introduces an element of interest.  How might I go about finding it?  A search for “Rape of Lucrece” finds the soon-to-be illegal image here[2], but what search term might find something more modern?  Maybe I can get a handle on some search terms by looking at the spam appearing on – and more usefully being filtered from – this blog.  Here’s a sample, though those particular search terms are probably long-since outdated.  I’ll leave the details as an exercise for the reader, but if you start a blog at you’ll have access to an akismet log containing lots of clues, likely to be more current than any stupid block-list.

[1]  Unless our governments were to do something genuinely useful and take serious action against spam.
[2] At least, logically speaking.  I expect they’ll find a loophole for anything that can get itself classified as art.

April fools or spooks?

Isn’t it both bad taste and bad judgement for government to play April fools jokes?  Or for media to devise such jokes that purport to be serious reports of government?  Yet the BBC is reporting what must surely be an April Fools story about plans for Orwellian surveillence.

I used to think The Liar’s hostility to freedom of thought and speech was a historic anomaly: surely the parties of the smaller state / big society and the traditional champions of civil liberties would halt the advance of fascism.  But it seems not: first we have book burning on the coalition’s watch and nothing happens, then in a chilling rejection of free speech, someone gets locked up for being an arse on twitter (in sharp contrast to those who don’t get locked up for actual violent attacks).

As a software developer I have spent many years working on the dream of liberating us all from shackles of geography.  If the spirit of Blair still rules us and has extinguished that of Voltaire, maybe it’s time I shifted my attention in another direction.

Villains and Scapegoats

I’m thinking of buying News of the World in the morning.  If I do, it’ll be the first time in my life, as well as the last.

Now that it’s closing down amid a veritable shitstorm (pardon my language) I keep hearing interesting things about it: a long history and some proud stories.  Apparently it has hitherto been Britain’s best-selling rag.  Yet I don’t even know what it looks like!  Although I must presumably have seen it in the shops, it’s never registered.  Is it so visually cluttered as to draw attention away from its identity?  Could it be because I never realised (until it became news) that the phrase News of the World was a name, rather than a slightly tongue-in-cheek claim or headline?  No matter: that’s neither here nor there.

But the circumstances of its closure are another story, and they’re far from the only villain.  Indeed, I’d go so far as to say not even the chief villain, but at least in part the scapegoat for a holy cow that can’t be touched.  It’s surrounded by villains: others in the press who didn’t get caught, police turning more than just a blind-eye, kowtowing politicians.  And hypocrites: readers who bought it and now revile it, and now prominently the Church of England huffing and puffing over its investment in News Corp.

For the benefit of international readers who may not know the story, the paper is in disgrace over phone-hacking.  Some other methods of collecting information have come into question, but that’s the key one.  That’s illegal, but historically we’ve turned a blind eye as investigative journalists have done work often in the public interest, and indeed pursued serious villains where police lack the will or the resources.  We’ve agonised over grey areas like celebrity tittle-tattle: there’s no defensible reason to intrude on the private life of an entertainer such as a footballer or pop-star, but that kind of thing evidently has a big audience.  What everyone agrees is utterly beyond the pale is intrusion on people in the news for reasons of personal misfortune, headed by the story of interfering with phone calls to Millie Dowler, a schoolgirl who had disappeared and (as subsequently emerged) been murdered.

Actually I wonder if that’s really so indefensible?  The ideal outcome for the paper would’ve been a happy ending: girl found safe and reunited with her family.  Or failing that, crime solved and villain caught, as (eventually) happened.  Who’s to say the paper wasn’t in fact working hard to become the hero of that story by actually solving the case – surely a dream outcome for it?  If its efforts had triumphantly found her, we’d surely have forgiven the dubious means, and we could’ve felt good about buying the paper!

Just as we’ve turned a blind eye to methods deployed by the Telegraph to unearth information on the parliamentary expenses racket.  Public interest!

But not having solved the case, the paper doesn’t have that defence.  And to make it all the more emotive, the Dowler case was recently in the news for other reasons: her murderer[1] was recently convicted, and her family went through a horrendous ordeal in the legal process.  But that was inevitable: our legal system ensures that anyone who gets caught up in it will suffer: victim or villain, or third-party such as a witness.

Or indeed juror.  In another recent case, a juror was jailed for no more crime than being a bit of an idiot.  Truly chilling – and no more than the tip of an iceberg of abuse of jurors!  Of course, the judge in question and the others who run the whole sick game with peoples lives have judicial immunity, which means they’re quite literally above the law no matter how stupid or corrupt they may be.

Chancery may be history, but the spirit of Jarndyce and Jarndyce remains crushingly relevant today.  The Dowler family suffered two terrible ordeals: first, loss of the girl, and second the court case.  Surely some investigator phone-tapping is utterly trivial compared to either of those, yet it’s the paper, not the legal system, that’s in trouble!

What’s going to be the outcome of this case?  The legal system will remain untouched and damage to government is unlikely to escalate.  The police is getting what looks like a well-deserved kicking and heads may possibly even roll, but probably no substantial change.

The press is the main story: government is now setting up two enquiries, which are likely to lead to changes to the regime under which news organisations work.  Fortunately the present government is not such a natural enemy to free speech as its predecessor, so a severe curtailment throwing out the baby with the bathwater isn’t as inevitable as would’ve been the case under The Liar.  But I fear it will hurt the ability of investigative journalists to do good work.  Con-men and fraudsters everywhere will stand to benefit if investigators better resourced than the police have their hands tied.

The other interesting question: how much muck will now emerge concerning similarly-shady practices in other newspapers and media organisations?  They must now be sitting nervously on a huge Prisoner’s Dilemma.

[1] Unless of course an innocent man got convicted.

Moglen vs History

King Canute famously failed to prevent the tide coming in.  I can’t help wondering if Eben Moglen is setting himself on a similarly futile course, when he calls for decentralisation of our information infrastructure.

The subject of Moglen’s opening keynote at FOSDEM was liberty, and how technology can work for or against it.  He spoke of current and recent topical events, from Wikileaks to the role of the ‘net in Egypt’s (so-far) peaceful revolution.  And of how technology can serve those who might threaten freedom: how much sensitive information could a heavy-handed government pick up from something as simple as a legal action on Facebook.  How Data Protection in Europe has merely served to outsource handling of personal data to countries like the US with no such protection of privacy.

His call to developers was to build decentralised networks, where we can publish, communicate, interact as we do on the ‘net without submitting all our data to any centralised database that might become the focus of malign attention.   Examples of tasks he spoke of ranged from Facebook-style networking to building a citizens cellphone network from $20 base stations in people’s homes.  Tasks which are at least technically feasible to prototype and develop.

Listening to this, my reaction was that he’s battling against history here.  History on the ‘net has shown different media and channels becoming more, not less, centralised.  The once-popular Usenet medium for public discussion has given way to web-based fora: a wholly inferior medium for the task, and one for which I must admit my small measure of guilt (though it seemed like an interesting thing to implement in 1995).  IRC discussion remains popular amongst geeks, but elsewhere there came chatrooms, and now we even have Twitter making a grab for that space.  Every time, the geek medium gives way to an inferior one because the latter gets the mindshare.  Non-technical journalists will routinely invite us to ‘tweet’ them, or mention a web forum relevant to a topic under discussion, so the public learn of these media.  Meanwhile the old, decentralised, shared, and in both these cases altogether superior, media are relegated to enclaves of geekdom (or, in the case of much of usenet, to wastelands of spam and other abuse).  My suggestion to him was, you need to concentrate your efforts not so much on legislators, but on communicators.  Journalists in mainstream media!

OK, ‘net history is short.  Why should a campaigner for freedom not call for trends to be reversed?

A wider perspective tells us that the online centralisation trends of which I have written are merely examples of similar trends backed by far more history.  The most striking parallel in English history is the Enclosure of the Commons.  The absurd valuations given to some websites (headed by Facebook) tell us a new aristocracy is profiting from enclosing an online commons, albeit an ephemeral and transient one.

And I plead guilty to hosting my blog at another aristocrat of web-land, WordPress.  Yep, my rantings are centralised as a matter of simple convenience.

Dear Boris

As merely an occasional reader of your words of wisdom, it is serendipitous that I happened to spend the last few days in a household that takes the Telegraph on paper, and that I read your column commenting on the nature of certain elements of the blogosphere.  Not to put too fine a point on it, Here be rather unpleasant nutjobs (and that’s good).

Returning today to my own desk and ‘puter, I revisited your column online.  I see it has attracted (to date) 414 comments, which I confess to not having read.  Neither have I contributed thereunto: indeed, I have excluded myself from commenting on any Telegraph column since they introduced the requirement to create an account, on the grounds that I found their first data protection question too disgracefully ambiguous (do I tick the box to opt in to or out of their spamservices, products and promotions)?

So instead of commenting on your column where there might be some likelihood of at least some junior intern actually reading it and even bringing it to your attention, I’m writing on my own blog.  With a readership thousands of times smaller than yours and no visibility in the mainstream media, I am of course fully cognizant of the futility of so doing.  Outside my areas of professional interest my writing is its own reward: it seeks neither fame nor obscurity, respect nor ridicule; it’ll take what comes.  Such is indeed the human condition (if I may be so pretentious).

Of course you, unlike perhaps one or two duller-witted journalists, don’t need me to tell you that the nutjob elements of which you write represent but a small part of your readership.  Indeed, I am sure that if I were to read those 414 comments I should find among them wit and wisdom aplenty, alongside the nutjobs, and a deadweight of old, oft-repeated arguments.  I might even find among them the very point I should by now have made, had I come to this letter in the frame of mind I found myself in on first reading your column.

The point then is this.  Whereas you rightly welcome the ability of nutjobs to have their say along with everyone else, and recognise that one man’s nutjob is another’s prophet, there is a darker side that may be lost on you.  I don’t mean that the problem has never occurred to you, but rather that you might be a stranger to its full significance.  A man with the effortless self-assurance of an Eton alumnus, the thick skin of a senior politician, and the name-recognition of a major public figure is not a man to let himself be bullied, intimidated, and scared off by the baying of a lunatic fringe (correct me if I’m wrong).

However, your felicitous state is by no means universal, and in other fora it can be all too easy for the lunatics to take over the asylum (excuse my cliché).  I’m not talking about extremist fora such as islamists looking to turn the UK into a caliphate, or nationalists looking to send anyone with a pigmentation “back home”.  Better such people (insofar as they exist outside of strawman arguments) are out in the open than driven underground and given genuine grievances to nourish.  Setting aside the kind of rabble-rousing exemplified by the Daily Mail, what saddens me is to see moderate, mainstream fora taken over to the point where sensible members are driven away.

For example, in a site concerned with very legitimate economic concerns (going back long before “the credit crunch”) I have witnessed such diverse issues as anti-scientific nonsense becoming a ‘party line’ that looks mainstream, and female posters driven away by a misogynous element.  The latter is of course bound up with mainstream reaction against politically correct nonsense (exemplified by Ms Harman) that draws sensible, non-misogynistic posters (of both sexes) to react against certain wimmins issues and leads to a continuum between regular commonsense and the outrageous.

Now of course I wouldn’t for one moment suggest that you can or should seek to silence xenophobes, racists, islamists, misogynists, denialists, creationists, anti-capitalists, or any (other) kind of, shall we say, fringe.  Indeed, I welcome the current government’s efforts towards halting the rapid expansion of its predecessor’s police state.  But I would argue your piece tends towards complacency in essentially dismissing the effect nutjobs can have in excluding contrary, moderate opinion.

We are concerned when one group, whether it be drug dealers, gangs, or merely drunken youth, takes over areas of a city to the exclusion of others.  We should not dismiss similar concerns online!

Much ado about … what?

Heard on the wireless this morning, some latter-day Mary Whitehouse calling itself the Internet Watch Foundation has decreed that a Wikipedia page should be banned.  It seems the page in question includes a picture of a (child) girl in a state of undress, bringing it into witch-hunt territory.  It’s about what turns out to be some old (1976 ferchrissake) pop record, and the picture is of the album cover and is on sale perfectly legally in the shops.  But I didn’t know any of that until I found the wikipedia page in question via MJR’s blog.

What matters here is not some tacky picture (and I can’t see how anyone could consider it erotic – she’s pretty thoroughly unsexed in it).  But the IWF is claiming that they’ve persuaded UK ISPs to block the page, in a coup Mrs Whitehouse could only have dreamed of.  Trying it for myself, I could see the page (good).  But later in response to another comment I clicked on the image, only to find that had indeed been blocked (ouch).  Routing round the block, there’s another page with just a slightly larger version of the picture, again having no merit other than that of having provoked Big Brother.

That’s disturbing.  I couldn’t give a damn about some pop group or tasteless picture, but if this is allowed to stand it’s the not-so-thin end of a wedge to things that matter a lot.  And when I go to a page that does matter, I want to read that page.  In other words, I want to choose Shakespeare over Bowdler, let alone some anonymous nobody without even the latter’s modest talents.

First they came for the trash, and …
… I got p***ed off enough to rant about it, because I have read Niemöller, Miller and Orwell.

Dear Lazyweb, can anyone tell me what UK ISPs will stand up to vain and stupid censorship?

(Lots of Wikipedia links in honour of their role in this story.  One more link: a transcript posted by the author of this wikipedia entry of this morning’s piece).

Free speech, please

As in other countries, there’s a xenophobic fringe to politics in the UK. We have two well-known parties: the “British National Party”, and the “UK Independence Party”. The former is working-class and is routinely denounced as racist thugs in the mainstream press; the latter is middle-class, and gets – broadly speaking – a good press.

[aside: Interesting that they both focus on an uneasy union of four nations as the subject of their allegiance. In the UK today, Scotland and Wales each has their own nationalist parties and some measure of independence, and Northern Ireland presents an ongoing problem, yet the xenophobic fringe parties bundle them together with England in their vision of a nation]

[aside2: There are elements of similar xenophobia in the main parties but, reassuringly, when William Hague’s Tories made it a major part of their platform, they went down to their biggest ever election defeat]

Anyway, back to the story. Radio 4 just had a discussion about Free Speech vs protecting peoples sensibilities. Among the witnesses questioned were the BNP leader Nick Griffin, so unusually we (the public) had the opportunity to hear from that party, as opposed to the usual filtered reporting of them. He argued strongly for free speech, and came across as hugely more reasonable than the frenzied portrayal of a demonic party we usually get.

And therein lies one strong reason why we need free speech. If Griffin and his party are reasonable people, then why do the media generally deny them a platform? And if they are demonic thugs, let’s hear them and they’ll surely condemn themselves from their own mouths. My best guess is that they fall somewhere between those descriptions, but that’s not a judgement I can make based only on secondhand media reports.

Religions thrive on repression: they become a focus for justified resentment and anger. The bible is full of epic stories; the seeds of christianity grew under persecution in Rome; Islamic extremism today is fed by monstrous injustices and blatent double-standards in the Middle East. If we repress the BNP, they too may thrive on it.

The R4 debate had another interesting contributor: a catholic lady writer whose name escapes me but who (like Griffin) has been attacked for highly controversial views. Of course, the catholic church is traditionally a bastion of intolerance, yet she too made a favourable impression on me, arguing in favour of free speech. The only speaker who conformed to stereotype was a 1970s-style anti-fascist whose knee-jerk reaction was that anything the BNP say should automatically be outlawed.

The sad thing is the speed with which our freedom is being taken away, attacked on the dual fronts of Security and Political Correctness, both massively abused. Freedom of speech has been much eroded, not only on the dubious fringes inhabited (allegedly) by the BNP, but also in such cases as Brian Haw, the peace protestor whose extraordinary persecution must be deeply disturbing to any Brit who would prefer not to live in a totalitarian state (whether you agree with him or not is, of course, immaterial). At the same time, they’re rapidly eroding the legal protection we formerly took for granted against political imprisonment. Add a quarter of a century to Orwell’s famous dystopia, and you have it.