Amidst the Brexit chaos right now, you’d be forgiven for thinking that nothing else is getting done in Parliament; all parliamentary energy being sacrificed to the Brexit deadlock. But, amidst the delirium, something of paramount importance other than Brexit actually happened. On the 8th of April, the Government presented its White Paper on Online Harms before the Commons.
The White Paper aims to tackle the worst elements of social media. Of particular note is the plan’s aim to tackle the evils of ‘revenge porn’, child abuse videos and the concept of ‘fake news’. All these will have to be removed from online platforms by the tech companies. They will be bound by a code of conduct too, and face legal punishment for not complying with the code. Potential breaches are to be decided by an independent regulator.
In this age, the internet has become a medium for connection with all the world around us, and a tool for enticing others into our own world. This power is at the mercy of us all, whether we use it for good or for ill, and unfortunately the White Paper exists due to some people’s usage of it for ill. On first glance, the intentions of the Government seem perfectly legitimate: to rid us of abuses of the internet’s power and the evil fruits that result. However, perhaps it would be wise to pay attention to the words of parliamentary ancestor Edmund Burke:
‘They who truly mean well must be fearful of acting ill’.
I fear this White Paper might need to be subject to this maxim.
The White Paper makes an admittance, one that strikes to the very core of an erroneous mindset at this proposal’s heart. In attempting to deal with the phenomenon of ‘fake news’, it has to admit there is no legal definition for the term. While that might seem a minuscule, somewhat feeble premise to find fault with, I ask you to think more deeply about this.
Our feelings, our attitudes and our opinions are very much independent to ourselves. They form from our unique attempt to understand the ever-changing world around us. Nobody shares the unique experiences you have, nobody will ever quite have the same perceptions as you. In other words, our beliefs are subjective. This however, starkly contrasts the very nature of the law, which is objective. It must be objective or it fails to be the law. The law must be equal to all of us, or it fails to be the law. Our legal system prides itself on the principle of equality under the law — the fact that it must treat us all as equals since we are subject to it. In order for this equality to maintain, it has to also apply to our understanding of the law. If we don’t understand exactly what the law requires of us in a similar way, the law becomes unfair, unjust.
It is quite right, therefore, that the law in our society has not sought to legislate against opinions and attitudes. In any crime against the law it has to be one’s actions; what one consciously chooses to do, that is what must be regulated. The White Paper seeks to fight that which is ‘hateful’, and eliminate ‘harms’. But what does it mean to ‘harm’? What is it to ‘hate’?
To use a somewhat clichéd description, the White Paper’s title and aims can only be described as having an Orwellian edge to them. ‘Hate’ in the sense of this conversation seems to be a term that can be identified however we want it to be identified. What is ‘hate’ to you may be polite, rational disagreement to me. In giving power to an independent body to decide when an opinion might be ‘hateful’, the citizen is expected to meet an unknown standard based on another’s (the regulator’s) understanding of ‘hate’.
And then there is the concept of ‘harm’. Political debate gives ‘harm’ a loaded definition depending on the user. By expressing an opinion different to my own, with an argument much more convincing than my own, could you not say I have been given a ‘harm’ in that you have challenged my understanding of what is true? Even if you think I have been ‘harmed’ by such a position, you would surely argue that this ‘harm’ is not at a disadvantage to me, it could even be an advantage. It could lead me to abandon a false view of the world in favour of one that is true. At the very least, I have learned how those who disagree with me understand the world and what causes the difference between me and my fellow human beings.
The overarching problem that runs through the White Paper is that it appeals to a society that deals in sentiment over reason. The world of social media is fast so we are expected to respond with equal speed. But I suggest that we remember Burke’s maxim. While the White Paper may satisfy our just desire to protect the innocent from harm, we need to think long term. The last thing society needs is the creation of more enemies of the state. The state risks doing just that, however. When it becomes potentially an enemy of the liberty to think according to our unique worldview, that we believe is right based on our unique understanding, the state becomes a barrier rather than a guardian to us. If the state steps into the realm of our intellectual freedom, it attacks our sense of self, a most precious thing to each of us through human nature.
Hence, I think Burke’s maxim may apply now more than ever. While a serious scourge needs to be addressed, the consequences of legislating in haste may be more far-reaching than we believe. I’ll end with one more maxim. If we don’t rethink the strategy, we may discover that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.