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It’s not really free speech that matters – hence the web crackdown

The obsession of ‘freedom of speech’ is in part a smokescreen to disguise our lack of ‘freedom to hear’. This crackdown on web freedom is simply another step towards a world where we can say what we want but only ever hear what we’re given.

You can usually draw the conclusion that any ‘principle’ espoused by big corporations isn’t so much a principle as a commercial interest. This isn’t lazy anti-corporate diatribe but a simple statement of legal framework; a corporation is required to do certain things and not do certain things and have principles is in the ‘not do’ category. It has to return dividend to shareholders, first and foremost.

So when you hear big media corporations championing the importance of ‘free speech’ you can be fairly sure that they won’t be taking to the streets to oppose despots but rather using the cover to keep a still profitable business model going. The last thing these corporations have ever shown any interest in is a dispersed or balanced right to free speech, as anyone who has ever tried to get a newspaper to print a letter correcting bad reporting will know.

In my view, the left (in comparatively advanced, comparatively democratic countries) needs to stop thinking so much in terms of ‘freedom of speech’ as of ‘freedom of hearing’. It is not an insufficient right to speak which is the main problem in UK politics but the right to hear what anyone other than a small cabal of corporate media outlets and corporate political parties has to say. Simply rethinking why we have freedom of speech is an important starting point. The idea is not that anyone should be free to shout at a wall, get it off their chest and then go home and put up with the world as it is but that people in speaking to each other can debate and discuss an alternative to the world as it is (or can organise in favour of it). The trick in liberal democracy has been to stop the medieval papacy approach of preventing what people say but of controlling what they hear. In a society of small communities where the primary means of information-gathering is via conversation within communities, people can hear whatever other people have to say, hence the need to stop them speaking. But in large society where the various media control what people hear, it is much more effective simply to make sure no-one hears the ‘wrong’ ideas.

Which is why the internet is such a worry for the contemporary state. Now, I should stat by clearly declaring that I have always been and remain a bit of an internet-sceptic. In most general terms, the commercial nature of the web means that it is still hardly a ‘people’s utopia’, and its uncontrolled nature means that people do not have a high level of trust in its content. But mainly, we are a long way from the point at which the web is our main source of defining news content. Until mainstream media stops being the primary source of opinion, the web is a side issue. You don’t have to read the Sun to know what is in its pages because it remains a touchstone for debate and discussion. The idea we are free from media influence if we don’t consume any given part of the media is very deeply flawed.

But nevertheless, for those interested in accessing it, the internet does indeed provide a whole new way of hearing. I spent some time last week looking through the wealth of information on the massacre in Afghanistan being attributed to a single ‘rouge soldier’. For someone like me that wants to ‘hear’ an alternative to the mainstream media, the web makes it possible in a way simply impossible before – there was no public library of information on the day’s events curated by such a range of views. (And my conclusion, which I would otherwise have found it hard to arrive at, is that there is something decidedly wrong about the mainstream account).

Why is this agitating me today? Because of the proposed Bill being trailed in advance of the Queen’s Speech designed to allow the government to monitor any web communication live. Sure they’ll need a warrant, but with that they can eavesdrop in real time on your email, your social media usage, even the websites you visit. Given that this warrant will come from a judiciary which already accepts that environmental protesters do indeed inherently pose a public order threat and so can be treated in the same way as other ‘potential threats to the state’, are you confident? This is the judiciary that believes kettling protesters for many hours without access to food, shelter, medicine or toilet facilities is perfectly acceptable if the police consider it necessary. The judiciary very comfortable with giving young poor people draconian sentences to ‘set an example’. The judiciary whose members when called on to rule on issues of national interest produce reports that apportions all the blame to the BBC for the state telling outright lies to the nation. (Would you want Lord Hutton being left to decide whether someone should be able to monitor your life? This man was tasked with investigating abuse by the government and despite all the evidence to the contrary he did his bit and simply announced them not guilty. In a just world Lord Hutton would be properly considered an enemy of democracy.)

It’s national security. It’s always national security. In fact, I now work on the basis that if the government says ‘national security’ the default position is that they are lying. Because I really very much doubt that the current obsession with the web has anything to do with terrorists. Frankly, I refuse to believe that we have currently got insufficient legal recourse for tackling terrorists – we can jail people for making a joke if it involves something that sounds like terrorism. But I do note that just as the abuse of the right of free speech by the Murdoch group of newspapers is suddenly being used as a justification for cracking down on what can be written on Twitter, also there is a growing ‘consensus’ that people can’t just treat the internet as free space.

The internet isn’t all good and it isn’t all nice – as a function of the human soul it isn’t going to be. Yes there are reasons to make sure that behaviour on the internet is not above and beyond the law. But currently it isn’t – as the rash of people getting jail time for online comments are discovering. But allowing a blanket right (subject to a pliant judge) to monitor anything is a massive threat to the right to hear alternative views. And anyone who thinks it an accident or coincidence is probably being far too trusting.

The creeping authoritarianism in the West post-9/11 is continuing apace. Anyone who thinks that horrible day wasn’t extremely useful to the security state isn’t paying attention – it’s still being used as an excuse to make sure corporations know what environmental campaigners are thinking and planning. This Bill has to be fought. Beyond that, we in Scotland need to think hard about how to defend both free speech and free hearing, either in the constitution of an independent Scotland or by creative use of whatever powers we end up with in a system of greater devolution. You may not get to hear of the alternative.

Robin McAlpine