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

Qualified Primary Teaching Assistant

£64 - £73 per day + Competitive rates based on experience : Randstad Education...

Primary KS2 NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Primary NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Primary NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Piper Ryan Randall leads a pro-Scottish independence rally in the suburbs of Edinburgh  

i Editor's Letter: Britain survives, but change is afoot

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Some believe that David Cameron is to blame for allowing Alex Salmond a referendum  

Scottish referendum: So how about the English now being given a chance to split from England?

Mark Steel
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam