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A new kind of free speech case: For tweeting a bad-taste joke Paul Chambers lot his job, was arrested and charged with a catch-all offence (Reuters) 

In 1998 a science-fiction writer called David Brin tried his hand at science fact. Brin's predictions in The Transparent Society were not accurate in all respects – predictions never are. But he provided a way of thinking about the modern forms of invasion of privacy, which concern Lord Justice Leveson, and the criminalisation of speech, which unfortunately troubles him less.

At the end of the last century Utopian enthusiasts for the internet and all the computerised and miniaturised technologies that accompanied it, thought that scientific progress had allowed them to escape censorship. They foresaw an age of freedom when dictators, judges and secret policemen would no longer be able to contain them.

Techno-enthusiasts brushed aside the possibility that malicious public and private bodies (including malicious newspapers) could exploit computer technologies. Online activists, most notably Phil Zimmermann of Pretty Good Privacy, thought they could secure the emancipatory potential of the web with encryption systems that dark forces could never crack. A dissident in a dictatorship, for example, would use the web to circumvent state controls. But the technology was Janus-faced. Just as it gave him new powers, it gave the authorities new and minatory means to monitor him. Western geeks could solve his problem by giving him codes which ensured that only his intended recipients in the underground could read his emails. Western citizens could use encryption too if they wished. But as voters in democracies they could also demand that governments give them legally enforceable rights to protect their privacy.

Brin's Transparent Society stood out from the mass of now forgotten predictions about the internet because he understood that technology had made old levels of privacy impossible: "The djinn cannot be crammed back into the bottle. No matter how many laws are passed, it will prove quite impossible to legislate away the new tools and techniques." The best encryption systems in the world are of no use if the state or another public, private or criminal organisation can place a miniature camera behind you while you type, or insert a program into your system to monitor your key strokes. Instead of trying to protect the unprotectable, Brin called for political change to match changes in technology. He envisaged possible responses by imagining how two cities might look in 2018.

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Philip Arlington
July 25th, 2012
2:07 AM
MazulUK, you should feel safe at the airport because it is a demonstrable fact that the number of terrorist attacks is miniscule in relation to the number of flights. Hysterical over reaction to non-threats by the authorities will only make you feel less safe. In one sense that is its function. They need fake stories about danger to compensate for the lack of actual attacks, or more people might wake up and start questioning the over the top security that makes profits for many and allows other to act out their authoritarian instincts.

Chris Ashton
July 19th, 2012
8:07 AM
The government is not really interested in aviation security. If their were, they would be spending their time on...you know...aviation security. As it stands they prefer to make silly arrests, charge people with silly arrests, and frig about looking for nail clippers and tweezers, while issuing free passes to all manner of islamists, lest they be accused of racism.

Brekfast Newz
July 5th, 2012
1:07 PM
Re: "His inquiry was meant to be into systematic criminality by journalists." Not so. His enquiry (first part) was meant to be into the "culture, practices and ethics" of the media. The question was not just "who broke the law" but if and how a culture could have evolved within the media to allow such practices to become commonplace. Specifically, a culture of arrogance amongst the most powerful, least accountable political voices in Britain (as, perhaps until recently, the old-style 'titles' were). The fact that the stable door is now swinging on its hinges may make this point moot, but just because this inquiry is long overdue does not mean it is not widely welcomed. I do agree that its findings will only practically concern a traditional media that faces an uncertain future, and Leveson is out-of-touch and powerless in respect of the wider 21st century issues you raise. But it's not as though print media barely exists in 2012, and that the old regulated titles no longer have influence. Dacre, Murdoch, even Desmond still have huge capacities to promote their private interests in the name of 'freedom of speech'. So long as there are a few horses in the paddock, it's right and proper that we fix the stable door.

dirigible
July 2nd, 2012
10:07 AM
"Airport security is an extremely sensitive matter " Then it needs pursuing more competently than it has been here.

The Slog
July 1st, 2012
7:07 AM
An excellent piece. I think we got here via a national obsession with fame and an addiction to ill-judged emotional incontinence. But as a serious (hopefully) internet writer, the biggest problem with internet news is the volume of it (= easier to tell a lie and move on) plus the paucity of analysis (now-now-now, not 'why?'). Cameras will be watching us all deafacate in the end, so that the H&SE can check we're doing it properly. And still people won't mind. Ignorannce and insouciance are a powerful narcotic.

MazalUK
June 30th, 2012
6:06 PM
Sorry, Nick, this time I must disagree with you. Airport security is an extremely sensitive matter (I fly around 40,000 miles a year and I need to feel safe. Many countries impose strict penalties for behaviour like this - the Philippines and Singapore, to name just two. Ever since 9/11, the Glasgow airport attempted atrocity and various other Islamist atrocities all over the world, it has been essential for all threats to be taken seriously. Please reconsider your position on this one.

Dr Brian Robinson
June 27th, 2012
6:06 PM
Absolutely right Nick. It's truly no less than terrifying. How did we get to this? But more to the point, what can we do about it?

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