Author: Matthew Mott

Is It Time to Regulate Social Media?

In these increasingly polarised times, Facebook, Twitter, and Google have managed to attract disdain from both sides of the political spectrum. According to the progressive Left, social media is a lawless frontier where abusive trolls poison the atmosphere, racism and sexism are rampant, and various far-Right groups propagate fake news for their own nefarious purposes. On the Right, meanwhile, Facebook and Twitter are perceived to be safe spaces for terrorist recruiters and child pornographers, policed by intolerant Silicon Valley liberals who use secret algorithms and targeted censorship to suppress conservative thought. Establishment politicians on both sides investigating Russian influence in the 2016 election recently grilled Facebook and Twitter over the issue. Suddenly, everybody seems to agree that, unless and until state power brings these companies into line, social media will pose a threat to truth, morality, and even democracy itself. Social media has certainly helped to transform the environment in which political discourse takes place. Conversations that might once have occurred in pubs or town hall meetings are now happening online. The anonymous Twitter account …

Online Hate Speech and the Nazi Pug

In 1941, the German embassy in Helsinki interrogated a Finnish man accused of training his dog to raise its paw in response to the word “Hitler.” This act was considered disrespectful to the Third Reich but, fortunately for him, no witnesses were prepared to come forward and the prosecution was dropped. A Scottish court has now succeeded where the Nazis – on this count, anyway – failed, and convicted a man over a Hitler-saluting dog. Markus Meechan, aka “Count Dankula,” is the self described “internet comedian and shitposter” recently convicted under the Communications Act for publishing a short video of his girlfriend’s pug to lifting its paw in response to the command “Sieg Heil!” Meechan uploaded the clip (now disabled) to YouTube in April 2016 under the category “Comedy.” He explained: My girlfriend is always ranting and raving about how cute and adorable her wee dog is. So I thought that I would turn him into the least cute thing I could think of, which is a Nazi . . . I’m not a racist, by the …

The Internet Is Not a Children’s TV Channel

As we enter 2018, we are only a few months away from the British government’s proposed deadline for imposing age verification obligations on porn sites. The measures were introduced as part of the Digital Economy Act 2017, and require commercial providers of pornography to ensure that their material cannot be accessed by anyone under 18. An appointed regulator, subsequently revealed to be the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), will have the power to order Internet service providers to block sites which fail to comply. Unsurprisingly, the law has provoked a range of criticisms. Online freedom campaigners such as the Open Rights Group are concerned about yet another attempt to censor the web — there is no opt-out, even though most British households have no children — while some members of the adult entertainment industry worry about the implications for user privacy and the financial impact on smaller sites. Even Private Eye have questioned the commercial wisdom of allowing a company which operates several large porn sites to also provide the age verification service that …

Internet Infrastructure is the New Battleground for Free Speech

In early August, Google engineer James Damore made headlines when his skeptical critique of Google’s diversity agenda was leaked to the public. While most of the tech media had a collective meltdown, Quillette published an intelligent response by four respected academics, defending some of the science underpinning Damore’s arguments. Unfortunately, it didn’t stay online for very long. The site was promptly hit by a denial of service attack which rendered it inaccessible for about a day. Whether the attack was the work of some left-leaning script kiddie offended by the support for Damore, or a false-flag operation designed to make us assume as much, we will likely never know. Whatever the motivation, the fact remains that person or persons unknown were able to unilaterally, albeit only temporarily, decide what legally-published content was allowed to appear online. The normal solution to attacks such as this is to enlist the services of a company like CloudFlare, who can defend a site by concealing its true location within a much larger network. This was presumably what the administrators …

Science, Sin, and Paternalism

A new study, published in July by University College London, has apparently revealed that men (but not women) who consume a large amount of sugar are at higher risk of long term mental illness. The scientists who carried out the study used their press release to support the British government’s so-called “sugar tax” — a special levy due to be imposed on certain soft drinks in 2018. One author expressed dismay that a similar policy was not enacted in other European countries, while another added a jab at the “commercial forces” that “exploit” the gullible, weak-willed populace by selling us sugary drinks. The message is loud and clear: sugar is bad, government regulation is good, and now we have the science to prove it. Although the study itself is available online, I am not qualified to provide a detailed critique of its methodology or conclusions. A cursory inspection suggests that it does at least look like science, and does not contain poetry, “performative autoethnography”, or any of the other gibberish that characterises the worthless vanity …

Censorship, the Authoritarian’s Snake Oil

Of all the many world-changing inventions that have come from the field of particle physics, few are more prominent than the World Wide Web. Invented in 1989 by Tim Berners-Lee as a tool for sharing data with other scientists at CERN, the Web was based on a simple yet powerful idea: that a single mouse click could take you from one page to another, anywhere else on the planet. Berners-Lee was remarkably forward-thinking, proposing not only rich content like images or video, but also that the Web should be an interactive and democratic medium, where every user has the power to speak as well as listen. The millennium gave us blogs, wikis, and social media, at which point Berners-Lee’s dream was (sort of) realised, and the internet grew from a toy for geeks into a public utility as ubiquitous as electricity or television. The rest, as they say, is history. But where science leads, lawyers and politicians inevitably follow. It didn’t take long for the self-appointed moral guardians to arrive on the scene, realise that …

Denying Encryption To Terrorists Is A Fantasy

The script for responding to Western terror attacks is now so predictable that they might as well publish a schedule in the TV listings. First we get the platitudes: “praying for” the affected city, liking Facebook statuses, and projecting flags onto buildings. Next there is the denial stage, where the commentariat implore us not to make assumptions about the attacker’s motives, because for all we know this was actually the work of Buddhist monks or the National Farmers’ Union. Then comes the hand-wringing over the potential racist backlash at the hands of the unstable, knuckle-dragging public, whose desire for an anti-Muslim pogrom can only be kept in check by loudly proclaiming that Islamic terrorists are not Real Muslims. Finally, once the emotion has died down, politicians can get on with doing what they do best — demanding more control over the internet. After Khalid Masood murdered four people in London last month, Home Secretary Amber Rudd wasted no time in laying the blame at the feet of WhatsApp, insisting that secure messaging apps must not …

Censorship-Free Social Media: the Next Big Thing, or Just Another Echo Chamber?

In July 2016, Breitbart Tech journalist and notorious right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos was permanently banned from Twitter. It wasn’t his first run-in with the Twitter authorities, but this time the ban was permanent. The justification was that he had allegedly encouraged his 300,000-odd followers to harass Ghostbusters actress Leslie Jones. But his fans took the view that Yiannopoulos, like others before and since, had been kicked off Twitter because his conservative politics offended the sensibilities of its left-wing CEO, Jack Dorsey. Four months later, Donald Trump — candidate of choice for Yiannopoulos and his alt-right fellow travellers — achieved a surprise victory in the US presidential election; a seismic political upheaval that, like the similarly unexpected Brexit vote, seemed to put the impotence of the establishment media beyond any doubt. If Twitter and other Democrat-supporting behemoths thought that policing online speech was going to carry Hillary Clinton to victory, they were mistaken. Censorship, however, is like alternative medicine: if it doesn’t work, you just need to do more of it. Social media purges have only intensified since …