God save us from the Queen’s censor

Tim O’Reilly’s foolhardy effort to wash the blogosphere’s mouth out with soap has a dangerous new ally: Tessa Jowell, the UK’s secretary of state for culture, media and sport. The peril is great: government deciding what is civilized conversation. In my Guardian column on O’Reilly’s proposed blogger code of conduct, I said that I did not want schoolmarms telling me what to say. It is all the worse for that schoolmarm to have the power of government behind her.

Jowell said this in a speech before progressives and at the Guardian’s Comment is Free, where today she is to answer questions from readers who, thank God, oppose government interference in our conversation. In her speech, she said:

But change never comes without challenges.
I welcome the initiative by Web pioneer Tim O’Reilly and Wikipedia founder, Jimmy Wales, for a “Blogging Code of Conduct”.
The wonderful, anarchic, creative world of the Blogosphere shouldn’t be a licence for abuse, bullying and threats.

There is a need for serious discussion about maintaining civilised parameters for debate, so that more people (and women and older people in particular) feel comfortable to participate.

And just who sets those parameters? Who defines civil conversation? Who enforces that? How? Where are the limits of that interference with free speech? It there is not a license for abuse, do you favor licenses for civility? Who issues those? Who can revoke them? Yes, I know the UK does not have the privilege of a First Amendment, but surely a government minister should understand the principles of free speech. Apparently not. In her Comment is Free post, Jowell said:

The internet is a vigorous and now invaluable part of the public realm, or what I prefer to call “ourspace”. Ourspace, whether physical or virtual, includes those places and spaces where people meet as equals; where public engagement and debate takes place.

Ourspace is part of the “commons” of the UK and something that goes much wider than just the state to include, for example, public service broadcasting; the arts, culture and sports; parks and other public open spaces; and of course the internet – in short, spaces where all feel welcome to participate, to enjoy themselves and to learn.

That is a dangerous principle she puts forth there: the internet as the equivalent of government property. She continues:

User-generated content on the internet – citizen journalism – is just one welcome example of “virtual ourspace” being used in this way. But as power shifts increasingly into the hands of citizens, responsibility must follow. The internet is transforming the way the government interacts with people and the way people interact with one another. But change never comes without challenges. . . .

Blogging took off earlier in the US and the blogging community has become a powerful political force there – I hope the same happens here. But surely its full potential to benefit civil society cannot be realised unless the quality of online debate itself is civilised? Surely we do not want online discussions simply to mirror the often aggressive, boorish and pointless exchanges that sometimes pass for debate on the floor of the House of Commons, and which are such a turn-off for voters?

Note, then, that she is proposing holding the citizens to standards their “leaders” need not follow.

She concludes:

Some commentators have suggested that the idea of a code of conduct shows the growing maturity of the blogging community in the US, although some of the more virulent attacks on the suggestion (and on O’Reilly and Wales themselves) have shown nothing except the immaturity of some users. But perhaps, taken as a whole, this proposal is a rare example of a good lesson for us in Britain to learn from American politics?

Gotcha, Jowell: Right there you’re saying that people who disagree with O’Reilly and Wales show nothing but immaturity. Perhaps they just disagree. Who’s to say? You? God forbid.

Some of the comments addressed to Jowell at Comment is Free:

How can people be so naive that they have decided that censoring is a method of “increase the quality of internet debates”?

Who decides whats offensive?

It amazes me that people actually think they are being progressive by proposing censorship. . . .

Why should the govt have a say-so on (a) the drafting of such a code (b) the enforcing/sanctions of it, beyond the laws of the land? . . .

Tessa – how very naive and middleclass and patronising of you. Whilst there may be some tedious and boorish voices on the ‘net they are generally outnumbered by the authentic voices of the many who feel unrepresented and disenfranchised by ‘professional’ politicos like yourself. Instead of trying to smuggle in censorship of the ‘net under the guise of ‘acceptability’ wouldn’t you be better employed lobbying for a code of behaviour for MPs that corresponds better with what most people outside of Westminster see as honesty and morality? . . .

I am all in favour of civility but am very concerned that the Government should be looking to enforce it. It could very easily turn into another kind of bullying. . . .

Yet again NuLabour seek to suppress voices that don’t fit with their incredibly narrow, self-interested views. Civility is down to the individual and the individual alone, not for the Govt to impose. The Govt itself is staggeringly rude and insulting to the populace time after time. What’s worse is the very real likelihood that ‘off-message’ posts get deemed rude or abusive simply because they do not tally with the establishment’s particular mindset. Is calling Patricia Hewitt a liar abusive? Certainly it can be demonstrated that she’s a liar (to the House of Commons too…see http://nhsblogdoc.blogspot.com/ for how she has lied over the MTAS fiasco). I’d bet though that comments to such effect would fall foul of Jowell’s notions of civility. Tessa’s message is “Keep a civil tongue in your head while we crap on you from a great height” . . .

Do you not understand the perception the people of this country have of your government’s control-freak mentality, and the way this confirms many people’s worst fears about The Left and its tendency not to trust The People?

Considering the current political environment – where your government is perceived as increasingly authoritarian, and indeed considered by many to be encroaching on the territory usually occupied by those called ‘dictatorial’ by passing laws to fundamentally alter the relationship of citizen and state (ID databases, restrictions on legitimate protest within a mile of the seat of government, detention without trial, &c.) – do you really think it is a good idea to even be talking about State interference in Freedom of Expression? Do you not understand that this is an area best left to individual moderators, other users and the existing laws regarding (for instance) Libel? In short, self policing.