Who rules the web? Not us, and definitely not Sally Bercow

Silicon Valley pioneers hoped networks would leave people free to self-govern

Share
Related Topics

In 1991, a computer engineer called Loren Carpenter carried out an experiment. He gave a theatre full of people a paddle each; green on one side, red on the other. By turning their paddles, the two halves of the room collectively controlled a Pong bat on a giant screen. Green caused the bat to go up and red sent it down. Too many people showing one colour, and the paddle on their side would sail off the screen. Soon a remarkable thing happened: they held a rally, even as the ball sped up.

Carpenter’s experiment was said to demonstrate The California Ideology. Many believed that computer networks would erode old hierarchies, leaving people free to self-govern. On the surface, social media is a clear expression of this freedom: we are one click away from complimenting, collaborating with, or criticising whoever we wish.

But as Sally Bercow’s libel case begins, we see how far we are from digital utopia. Bercow is accused of libel, for tweeting "Why is Lord McAlpine trending? *innocent face*", amid intense speculation around the identity of a high-profile alleged paedophile. The prosecution have argued that the tweet was a “nudge and a wink to readers”.

Last month, Paris Brown, the 15-year-old police commissioner who sent offensive tweets, became the target of a police investigation, under the Communications Act 2003. This was the act that led to the prosecution of Paul Chambers for tweeting a joke about blowing up Sheffield airport in 2010. The following year, there were 1,286 prosecutions under this act for “send[ing] by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character”. That’s almost 1,300 people put before a judge for behaviour on social media, up drastically from 498 in 2007.

Many of these prosecutions are for trolling, a phenomenon with which it is nigh-on impossible to sympathise. Leaving vicious and hurtful messages on the Facebook pages of dead children is indefensible. But there is a difference between this and the case of Matthew Woods who, last year, was handed a 12-week prison sentence for posting jokes about April Jones and Madeline McCann. Similarly, Azhar Ahmed who, angry at the UK’s involvement in Afghanistan, wrote on Facebook: “All soldiers should DIE & go to HELL!” was fined £300 and given 240 hours of community service. Both of the convicted were 20 years old: young and dumb, perhaps - but criminals?

Concerns over cases such as these led to the Crown Prosecution Service drawing up revisionary guidelines for the Act in December 2012. But these were broken by Kent Police’s investigation of Brown, while the ink was still wet.

The Californian Ideology drew together paradoxical ideas from the right and left. It is today mainly evidenced in the libertarianism that underpins Silicon Valley’s rampant entrepreneurship. Apple, from its till-less stores to its user-generated apps, is a prime example. But the dream of self-regulation made no accounting for wayward entities like trolls, or establishment reaction to this brave, new world.

Bercow and Brown show us that, between the UK’s notoriously stringent libel laws and continued heavy-handed use of the Communications Act, we are left - two decades after Carpenter’s giant game of Pong - a long way from a system of effective online governance.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Yvette Cooper campaigning in London at the launch of Labour’s women’s manifesto  

I want the Labour Party to lead a revolution in family support

Yvette Cooper
Liz Kendall  

Labour leadership contest: 'Moderniser' is just a vague and overused label

Steve Richards
Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine