What Happened When Free Speech Campaigners Joined A Trolling Victim And Anti-Bullying Champion?

Beyond The Ballot is The Huffington Post UK's alternative take on the General Election, taking on the issues too awkward for Westminster. It focuses on the unanswered questions around internet freedom, mental health and housing. Election news, blogs, polls and predictions are combined with in-depth coverage of our three issues including roundtable debates, MP interviews and analysis

It is an issue intrinsic to how Britain works, communicates, and does business. But in Labour's manifesto, launched on Monday morning, the word "internet" merited a mere three mentions. "Social media" got just one - with a vague promise to "challenge prejudice" therein. Digital manifesto promises appear limited to a pledge "affordable, high speed broadband" for the country by the end of the Parliament, and campaigns to help the digitally illiterate. "Surveillance" did not merited a single mention.

It's a stinging indictment of the increasingly narrow focus of the election campaign that with just weeks until the general election, an exclusive poll for The Huffington Post UK found that political parties are discussing issues outside the economy and the NHS so little, that the vast majority of the public unaware of any policies on pressing issue of digital rights.

Trolling, pornography, digital snooping and internet freedom are issues that touch the lives of almost every single Briton, yet a total of 56% said they don't trust politicians to legislate what we can and can't do online, the Survation poll found.

So why do parliamentarians always seem to be behind the curve on digital advances and the issues they pose? How can we legislate to protect free speech but to curb devastating trolling and harassment online? And should parties be pledging a digital bill of rights?

The Huffington Post UK sat down with five experts, from the most disparate ends of the debate, all frustrated with the lack of any political nous or impetus on the topic. They are Open Rights Group's Jim Killock, who fiercely campaigns on digital privacy and against mass surveillance, Index on Censorship's Jodie Ginsberg, concerned with the creeping suppression of free speech online, and Greg Callus, a barrister specialising in digital issues and a champion for net neutrality. Joining them were Nicola Brookes, a victim of vicious trolling who campaigns for more police powers to deal with hateful speech online, and Dan Raisbeck, from the charity Cybersmile, who looks at educational solutions to protect children from cyberbullying.

At a Huffington Post round table on 'The Digital Deficit' which examined the sheer lack of mention of internet issues like privacy, trolling and free expression in the General Election campaign, it was claimed human rights in Britain do not give enough protection to citizens of the internet age, but a 'digital bill of rights' is not necessarily the answer.

While questions were raised over the efficacy of a digital-age Magna Carta proposed by World Wide Web founder Tim Berners Lee, panel members said they had identified "emerging rights" which politicians had not addressed.

All said there were clear issues for politicians to address in the next parliament:

  • The need for 'safe spaces' for children to discuss online safety, privacy and bulling
  • Renewed impetus from the Department of Education to encourage schools to teach 'digital citizenship'
  • Sex education to include the risks of posting information on social media
  • Better training for police to deal with victims of online harassment, and to re-think advising victims to 'censor themselves' by closing down social media accounts
  • An radical re-think of the parliamentary oversight of GCHQ in order to properly assess issues of surveillance and privacy

How can we deal with politicians without better digital literacy?

Which politicians seem to care about internet freedom and digital rights? Former Tory minister David Davis has campaigned tirelessly on surveillance and privacy. Labour's Tom Watson made key pledges in 2010 on digital issues, including the right to internet access. And Julian Huppert has spoken out repeatedly on civil rights in the digital age.

But that's just about it. Increasingly, there is a concern amongst digital rights advocates and tech innovators that legislation is moving too slow, or will always err on the side of censorship and suppression if the technology cannot be understood by digital illiterate politicians.

"There is a high level of digital illiteracy," Index's Ginsberg said. "It was encapsulated for me when shortly after the 2010 election I went to see a government minister who was notionally in charge of data issues, who told me he had had a fascinating meetings about ‘biscuits’.

"What he meant was cookies, computer cookies. But the level of ignorance about the internet and its most basic forms and how it works I think is fairly pervasive. That fear leads to attempts to 'shut this all down', rather than attempt to understand how these things work and how to make better law."

"We get this hilariously sensationalist view of internet issues, there’s very little level debate and level information through the media on this and it just causes a lot of panic with people," Cybersmile's Raisbeck said.

Killock said that internet rights campaigners often had a tough time arguing their position to MPs, referring to the controversial Digital Economy Act 2010 which was aimed at tackling online piracy.

"It was very easy for the [corporations, music labels etc] to put a moral argument, that downloading from torrent sites is theft. You are stealing from the internet. And then you’d say ‘well, it isn’t really theft…’ and then you’ve lost.

"There is a battle of metaphors going on. With the digital economy act the metaphor was that this is all about theft, there’s a moral repugnance about what these people are doing. GCHQ use the metaphors around haystacks, we have to gather all of the data into a giant haystack in order to search for the needles. And they [politicians and the public] accept that metaphor."

Not only can it lead to bad policy, but Killock argued parties need to step up their game on digital issues or risk losing support from some quarters. "For the Liberal Democrats not to campaign on civil liberties and to stand up against further surveillance would be a huge mistake for them, because it would undermine their political position against the Green party for instance," the Open Rights Group director said.

"Labour could have chosen to target the Lib Dems and Greens far more thoroughly and say they will stand up for civil liberties on a wide range of things, and we are going to be a different party. That would help everyone understand them as a modern party that didn’t contain all the flaws of the Blair era and would allow them to combat those smaller parties a bit more."

The problem is not just a lack of understanding of technical issue, Brookes said, but an unwillingness to tackle new antisocial issues that the internet age brings. She turned to several politicians for help tackling online abuse directed at her and found only closed doors. Her MP, the Green Party's Caroline Lucas, failed to responded to her letter, Brookes claimed. And Lucas' Labour challenger Purna Sen did reply, but admitted she really had no idea how to stop the tide of harassment.

"I’m surprised there is not more being said about it because it is an issue for a lot of people," she said. "Online crime is rising and there’s not any real solution yet."

Callus said he was surprised that politicians had shied away from dealing with Brookes' problem. particularly because of the rising number of parliamentarians who are themselves active users of social networks. "More than half of our 650 members of Parliament are on Twitter, they are engaged in social media in broadly the same if not more so than the general population," he said. "But there’s a difference between understanding hard tech and understanding crimes like harassment. I think they are relatively good at the latter, on the social issues around online media."

Do we need more legislation?

For much of the criminal activity that takes place online, there is already a legal remedy. There are laws against child pornography, stalking, hate speech, incitement to violence and harassment. But sometimes the sheer amount of online abuse and the difficulties in tracing perpetrators can be too much for law enforcement to get a grip on.

Brookes, who has been subjected to yet more heightened and vicious abuse since her landmark court case, said even she believed the laws to tackle threatening trolling already existed, but were poorly used.

"The laws are there, sufficient laws are there but they’re not being enforced. It’s a mish-mash, taking bits from the Harassment Act and bits from the Communications Act. When I got my case back from the CPS… it was just completely confusing. And I thought ‘they don’t know what law to use’."

"The police have taken the view that there’s too much of it, they don’t want to get involved and they’d rather somebody else like social media companies sort it out," Killock said. "I don’t think that’s good enough, if you have laws that are transgressed, then it is up to the police to investigate, they should investigate and not say, ‘well, it’s digital we don’t really want to deal with it’.

"Politicians are short of time, short of money. They know that if you want to deal with extremism, you probably need to deal with Syria, frankly rather than messing about with internet censorship. However, internet censorship is something they can deliver, at low cost.

"So it is very tempting to say, we’ll do the censorship, we’ve done something, this stuff’s not out there. It’s a really easy argument for the Daily Mail to say, ‘you say you’re concerned about extremism but these video EXIST’.

"But dealing with the complicated issues tends to require real money, real resources people actually do the work and politicians are not so keen on that."

For that reason, Ginsberg cautioned against a "kneejerk" reaction for more legislation, summed up as "'let’s ban encryption, let’s prevent X'. Rather than the narrative from government from politicians how we enforce the existing law better. When people are faced with things that they don’t like, the reaction is, ‘let’s have more legislation’."

Callus said that in his legal experience, judges and lawyers tended to be better clued up on technology issues and better equipped to shape law to fit an ever-changing digital landscape. "Tech moves so quickly that sometimes it’s easier for courts to shape the law through their case law, rather than relying on a masterpiece of legislation once every 10 years," he offered.

Is the answer not in more criminal law but in education policy?

Raisbeck, whose own son was bullied so badly at school that he had to be homeschooled, said he found schools had practically no guidance when it came to dealing with abuse online. "Some schools want to meet it head on. Other schools simply can’t deal with it. And many parents simply can’t deal with it because they do not have that experience to draw on. They don’t know what Snapchat or Kik is.

"Adults use the internet completely differently to our six to eight year old children. We do not know what it is like to grow up in that digital society, so how can we pass on our wisdom? We can’t. We’re learning."

His charity Cybersmile has pushed for the concept of "digital citizenship" to be taught in schools, which would help pupils identify abusive or dangerous behaviour, as well as safeguard their privacy. "Again, there is no collective impetus or agreement on what this should be by the Education Department," he said.

Killock and Ginsberg both said they would favour new policies around digital education, to safeguard free speech and develop safe spaces for pupils to discuss difficult digital issues.

"If children are talking to each other about these things then it allows them to share experience and understand the problems and that they’re not as isolated," Killock said. "Schools are scared about talking about these things, especially when it’s about the internet and sex."

What about just self-censoring or coming offline?

"I am deeply concerned about moving to a position where people self-censor because the mob have decided that what they say is unacceptable because that leads to all sorts of problems," Ginsberg said.

"What we don’t get into a situation is where either the mob or the government decides that a whole raft of speech are unacceptable... The result of that is not just that we start to self-censor, we end up in a situation of complete silence and everything becomes extraordinarily beige. I think once you start to say ‘we all just need to be more polite online and we all need to say less of this’ that’s a slippery slope which we need to be very worried about.

But that is exactly what police advised Brookes to do, to keep quiet and hope the abuse would end. "The police said if you keep talking about it, you are going to be targeted," she said.

"... taking away your fundamental right to free speech," Ginsberg added.

"I have had to make my Twitter private in order for the police to investigate a Google blog against me where there are pictures of my home, photoshopped pictures of me," said Brookes. "I now receive hate mail through the post. They call it crime prevention, to close my Twitter and Facebook.

"But where’s my free speech? These people can say what the hell they like to me, get to me whenever they like, I have a right to answer back how I see fit."

Ginsberg said that was an area where trolling victims and free expression advocates were firmly on the same side. "The underlying implication is that you’re kind of inviting this by continuing to talk about it. So it’s much better if you just stop talking about it and then it will go away," she said. "You shouldn’t have to fall silent. Even if you were doing things to invite trolls, it’s not illegal. And that I think where we get into a problematic position."

But Callus said he still found the drive for "more enforcement" a worryingly undefined ideal. "My concern is actually whether this could be a cure that is worse than the disease.

"If we’re saying the legislation is fine and all we need is enforcement, what does that look like? No anonymous speech online?"

Maybe the answer is better access to justice, or more police funding?

Callus said that he believed any campaigners' "second issue" should be access to justice, and said that drastic cuts to legal aid, access to judicial review and court fees were preventing victims of online harrassment, or ordinary citizens concerned by privacy infringements, from challenging badly made laws. "The real issue here is access to the courts and access to enforcement of rights," he said.

"Unfortunately that means legal aid or some similar system that replaces it and access to judicial review. Both of these things have been seriously cut back by this government."

Cybersmile's Raisbeck had another concern which he said was badly damaging the chances of victims to confront cyberbulling - the lack of police resources.

"High tech crime units of local police forces, their emphasis is on really, really horrible stuff, paedophila rings and so forth, and they are stretched to the absolute limit," he said. "The police are stripped to the bone. These high tech crime units are trying to deal with the most horrific stuff going on in the internet and cases of cyberbullying which can run into tens of thousands every week.

"It’s very difficult to point a finger at the police and say ‘you’re not doing enough’ – they’ve got a lot to do."

Do we need a digital bill of rights?

Tim Berners-Lee, the British scientist who invented the world wide web 25 years ago, is in favour of what he terms a Magna Carta for the digital age. “There have been lots of times that it has been abused, so now the Magna Carta is about saying...I want a web where I’m not spied on, where there’s no censorship,” Berners-Lee said last year.

It's an idea which has caught the imagination of some, but Callus said he could not see the legal necessity. "I am radically against the idea of one," he said.

"The idea of tying fundamental rights of human beings to the technology of a very slim period of their history I think is fundamentally wrong.

Ginsberg said "at the risk of violent agreement" she would also not back a digital bill of rights. "We already gave a fairly comprehensive and universally agreed statement on fundamental freedoms and rights, and tying that additionally to a form of communication seems to me very short-termist and unnecessary.

"However that doesn’t mean there aren’t issues that do need to be tackled in order for everyone to enjoy those rights, one of which is access. We talk of the internet as a great democratiser that only works if you have it. In many cases, people don’t have that ability."

But Callus said that he could not see the workability even of giving citizens the right to access the internet. "One of the rights often posited is the right to broadband access," he said.

"A right to broadband access would mean a fixed amount of money to invest in stimulating the economy by increasing internet access. But they will have to spend a disproportionate about of money running fibre optic cables to rural Scotland rather than increasing the internet speeds and online engagement of 90-year-olds in the borough of Lambeth."

Killock said he believed that there are "emerging rights" that are not covered by current laws, one of which is the right to "use your tools".

"The law is telling us we can’t do things with things that we own, which are fundamental and big investments," he said. "Even your coffee machine, with the little pods, if you use the wrong sort of pod you are breaking the law."

"At the moment if you buy a computer you can do what you like as long as you are not breaking laws you can use it as you like," he continued. "This is getting undermined by tablets or other pieces of equipment which do what the manufacturer likes.

"Of course this starts giving you all kinds of problems if the tool in question is for example your car, or a pacemaker. A bloke in American had an insulin injector run by a small computer who was concerned about how it was working so he reverse-engineered it and found that it was entirely hackable, connected to the internet and could be switched on and off and if it was switch off by its battery, then it would deliver the default amount of insulin which would have killed him. And then he was told that was unlawful because he’d reverse engineered it."

Killock also expressed concerned that the right to privacy, being a qualified right, did not adequately cover the right to security.

"You have a right to decide what security you put on your own devices, what encryption you use, you shouldn’t have the government telling you that certain security tools are banned."

What is the most important digital issue for politicians to tackle?

For Raisbeck, government focus now needs to be on education around digital issues rather than on new criminalisations. "It’s just so clear to us there is a huge lack of adequate information or education for young people and parents dealing with the issues," he said.

Brookes said she believed that the police needed more resources to enforce existing laws. "Give the police more powers to more quickly investigate these things, fairly, equally for everyone," she said. But education and resources to help victims get help need to be extended to adults too, she said. "The help is not available to normal, everyday people. It’s so so hard to be listened to or get any sort of action."

Ginsberg said she wanted to see a more robust defence of free expression, even if it meant being politically unpopular. "What I would like to see come out of the next election is a sense that freedoms like privacy are protected and defended and what we don’t have is this kneejerk reaction where every new piece of legislation that’s intended to increase our security actually infringes our civil liberties.

"Continuous tweaks are being made in the name of our national security to protect us from terrorists and extremists and online bullies but actually the net result is we don’t catch the online bullies and the terrorists. We end up restricting and limiting the legitimate free speech of the much wider population."

Callus said he wanted to see greater discussion of net neutrality, and also a commitment to protecting freedom of information laws. "Freedom of information Tony Blair always says was his greatest mistake, some of us think it was maybe one of his greatest triumphs."

Killock's focus for the election campaign and beyond is mass surveillance, particularly government oversight. "The next government has to bring GCHQ under control. Politicians have no real clue what the programmes are, the implications of their activities, whether they make sense, whether they are hurting other parts of our policy or economy. They simply have the view that this is necessary for terrorism and therefore it’s OK.

"The one party talking about this in the manifesto is the Conservative party who want to introduce more surveillance. A lot of the politicians are aware that this is not a doorstep issue and they are actually frightened to deal with it. There is a cost, politically, to saying you want to limit something which is delivering national security."

As part of The Huffington Post UK's Beyond The Ballot series we want to know what issues you think aren't getting enough attention in the election campaign. Tweet using the hashtag #BeyondTheBallot to tell us in 140 characters and we'll feature the best contributions