Censoring ‘Fake News’ is the real threat to our online freedom

As the results of the US Presidential election began to sink in, the finger of blame swung around to focus on ‘fake news’ websites, that publish factually incorrect articles with snappy headlines that are ripe for social media dissemination.

A ‘fake’ headline. Via the Independent.

Ironically, the age of propaganda has previously thought to have died out with the proliferation of easy access to the Internet, with people able to cross-reference and fact check claims from their bedroom, rather than having a single domestic point of information. Instead, what it appears we are seeing is the opposite; people congregating around a single funnel of sources (Facebook), which filters to the top the most widely shared (read: most attention grabbing) articles.

Almost immediately, the socially liberal-leaning technology giants Google and Facebook announced that they would be taking steps to prevent websites from making use of their services. This has sparked a ream of discussion about the ‘responsibility’ of other online platforms to take steps to prevent the spread of these so-called ‘fake news’ sites on their networks.

Here, probably for the first time I can remember, I find myself in agreement with what Zuckerberg has (reportedly) said in response:

The suggestion that online platforms should unilaterally act to restrict ‘fake news’ websites is one of the biggest threats to free speech to face the Internet.

Those are my words, not his – just to be clear. Click through to see what he actually said (well, as long as the source can be trusted).

It is unclear exactly what ‘fake news’ is supposed to be. Some sites ‘outing’ publishers that engage in this sort of activity have included The Onion in their lists, which in of itself demonstrates the problem of singling out websites that publish ‘fake’ news.

  • Where is the line drawn between ‘fake news’ and satire?
  • At what point do factually incorrect articles become ‘fake news’?
  • At what point do ‘trade puffs’ and campaign claims become ‘fake news’ rather than just passionate advocacy?
  • If the defining factor is intent, rather than content, who makes that determination, and based on what set of values?

It is not the job of online platforms to make determinations on the truth of the articles that their users either share, or the content that they themselves publish. There is no moral obligation or imperative on them to editorialise and ensure that only particular messages reach their networks. In fact, it is arguably the complete opposite: they have an ethical obligation to ensure that they do not interfere in the free speech of users, and free dissemination of ideas and information; irrespective of their own views on the ‘truth’ or otherwise of them.

The real challenge to free speech isn’t fake news; it’s the suggestion that we should ban it.

Misinformation is a real issue, and the lazy reliance culture facilitated by networks such as Facebook and Google where any article with a catchy headline is taken at face value is a huge problem, but the answer is not for these networks to take things into their own hands and decide what set of truths are acceptable for us to see, and which are not.

We have reached a position where half of our societies are voting one way, whilst the other half can’t believe that anybody would ever make such a decision, precisely because we have retreated into our own echo chambers – both in the physical world as well as the virtual. The solution to the political struggles we on the left face is not to further restrict the gamut of speech that is open to us in our shared online spaces, or to expect service providers to step up and act as over-arching publishers; it is to get out there and effectively challenge those ideas with people that we would normally avoid engaging with. Curtailing the free speech of others through the arbitrary definition of ‘fake news’ is not only not the answer, but it’s a terrifying prospect to the very freedoms that we are arguing to protect.

The real challenge to free speech isn’t fake news; it’s the suggestion that we should ban it.

Disclaimer: It should go without saying that these are my views, and not necessarily those of WordPress.com, or anybody else.

Do we need a ‘Cyber Fire Department’?

Yesterday I attended the ScotSoft 2013 technology forum hosted by ScotlandIS in the Sheraton ‘Grand Hotel and Spa’ through in Edinburgh. The event – followed afterwards by an awards dinner (which I did not attend!) – had a number of speakers that covered issues across the software business lifecycle, from acquiring initial financial backing to long-term development plans.

ScotlandIS LogoThe keynote was on the future of the Internet, and came from none other than Google’s ‘Chief Internet Evangelist’, Vint Cerf. It only took a few minutes to realise why he rightfully deserves what is probably the coolest job title that any self-respecting geek could ever have. Whilst the rest of the day had been very much focussed on those involved in the business side of the tech industry, Vint spoke with a natural and pervasive authority on everything from the implementation of IPv6 (‘Go ask your ISPs what their roll-out plan is’), to the distributed and often chaotic nature of Internet Governance. It should perhaps have been obvious that this would be the case from one of the ‘founding fathers’ of the Internet, but it is a rare thing indeed to find someone who is not only so formidably technically able, but who also has the charm and charisma to communicate that passion and ability to others so effectively. In many ways, it brings into question the existence of the much fabled, so-called ‘digital native’, and whether or not such a thing can or should be defined by reference to any particular generation.

Vint covered many topics in the short time he was allocated – from the crude beginnings of ARPANET, all the way through to using TCP/IP in space – but there was one fleeting reflection in particular that really captured my imagination: the idea of a ‘Cyber Fire Department’. This wasn’t something that there was too much time spent expanding upon, but he explained by giving the example of somebody trying to single handedly stop their house from burning down with a bucket of water; eventually, they would need other people to assist with bigger hoses and more water than they could supply on their own. With people increasingly concerned about the issue of safety online, the notion of a service that responded to people experiencing overwhelming technological difficulties was something that he suggested ‘we should be thinking about’.

It’s this idea I’d like to think about.

Binary Hose PipeWhy on earth would we need or want such a thing?

At first, it might seem a ludicrous proposition, especially to those who still instinctively perceive the Internet as some sort of glorified playground for teenagers to frivolously socialise. To many, the web simply isn’t serious business, despite all of the evidence to the contrary. Truth is, it may well be easier to simply be dismissive rather than to face the difficult challenges that will inevitably need to be tackled as the result of the increasing permeation of the Internet into our everyday lives.

We now have a globally interconnected network which has transformed the way we communicate, and become incorporated into the very foundation of our economies. This is not a phenomenon that is going to be reversed, and if anything, is set to increase rapidly as mobile devices proliferate, and more and more objects get the ability to share information on the net (the latest hot phrase being the ‘Internet of things’).

Just as fire spreads quickly from adjoining buildings due to carelessness or lack of education, the same is true of the Internet; weaknesses in one system potentially having a devastating knock-on effect on others that are connected either directly or indirectly. In order to ensure the integrity of such an important asset, it appears that to contemplate the proposition of an emergency cyber response brigade seems eminently sensible.

What would a ‘Cyber Fire Department’ look like? What would it involve?

Let us assume that such a service was run separately from region to region, rather than some centralised, global endeavour. Aside from simply flying in the face of the distributed nature of the web in principle, I’m sure that all of us can imagine the bureaucratic nightmare that such an international entity would inevitably end up finding itself embroiled in (ICANN, anyone?).

The gut reaction to the suggestion of such a service may be to query the merit of a 999/911 type response to issues that do not fundamentally involve crimes relating to the person, but this model doesn’t necessarily have to be the one that is adopted. If brought into existence, the thing would not be required to have the same status as the major emergency services, nor indeed have to be publicly funded. One needs only to look at the myriad of examples that are out there already, such as the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) to see how such a service can be both publicly available and independent.

…but would the market swallow this? There are already commercial offerings from the likes of the ‘Geek Squad’ marketed as emergency technical support. It seems unlikely that there would be any philanthropic provision from a non-profit organisation with substantial enough backing to effectively take on the private actors, which would seem to indicate the inevitability of some sort of central Government involvement.

Perhaps a bigger hurdle to be overcome would not be the financial element of the funding, but the ideological implications of the origin. Already, creeping state involvement in the regulation of the Internet is being pushed back by advocates of the ‘open web’, and the introduction of such a significant step could be easily seen as too much interference in a sphere that by its very nature transcends the boundaries of nation states.

How far do we take this?

If we accept the premise that the Internet is a precious enough asset that we should adopt some sort of cyber fire department, then there are other interesting questions that become raised as a consequence. Off the top of my head, some of these might include:

  • Ageing computer systems and equipment pose some of the most significant security risks. Should we implement an MOT style check to ensure that the equipment people are using is of an adequate standard to help ensure safety online?
  • Do we grant the cyber fire department statutory powers to ensure that ‘cyber safety’ regulations are enforced, much as their equivalents in the actual fire service have?
  • Viruses are often spread by those who are unfamiliar with how to properly navigate online. Does this mean that we should implement a driver’s license style test before they are granted access to the Internet?

Some of this sounds preposterous, and would (rightly) be considered a massive encroachment into online freedom, but it wasn’t so long ago that the idea of state-wide Internet filters blocking access to content including message boards seemed completely out of the question too.

Thinking about it

The question about whether we should adopt an emergency cyber response service in the style of a cyber fire brigade may seem like being a long way off from any serious implementation, and it probably is. However, the discussion does spark off a whole slew of related considerations that we should be taking seriously. As the UK Government comes under criticism for its ‘digital by default’ strategy for not taking into account those without either the access or training to get online, the issue of digital engagement and education seems to go hand-in-hand with a lot of the concerns relating to online safety.

Whatever the outcome, we are at a point of transition, and the policy issues that are involved are as fascinating as they are complex. Like Vint said yesterday, it’s something we should be thinking about.