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.