Theresa May announced yesterday that web firms could get just two hours to take down “terrorist content” or face fines — our esteemed editor of poorly-conceived ranting Brandon the Gnoll has the latest hot take.
Everyone’s smashing the internet. From tabloid hotheads sledgehammering ISPs and search engines to plummy MPs at Westminster demanding the removal of end-to-end encryption, waging war on “internet extremism” is all the rage.
A Year Zero mentality is on the march. People seem hellbent on wiping out “extremist content,” making it invisible, and starting society all over again, cleansed of the likenesses of people of whom they disapprove.
This fury against the internet is presented as good and radical. The statute-smashers say they simply want to erase the faces and names of people who say bad things to show how far society has progressed and to make people scared by terror sensationalism feel more comfortable when they’re out in public.
In truth, there’s nothing good in this mob-like erasure of history. It’s a reactionary, even Orwellian, movement. The urge to use State power to cleanse public life of ‘extreme influences’, to shove down the memory hole any recordings of folk whose values make us bristle today, is intolerant, illiberal and profoundly paternalistic.
During the past week, the irrational fury against internet objects moved up a gear. First, in the wake of the Tube attack there was the predictable reiteration that the State should have carte blanche to infiltrate and shut down whatever sites it deems ‘extremist’ — yet more of the mission creep which led to the closure of left-wing website Linksunten Indymedia.
A few days later, Theresa May tied a rope around the necks of Google and Facebook and threatened to drag them down if the firms couldn’t find a way to get rid of “terrorist content” (as defined by the State) within two hours of it being posted. She didn’t kick and spit, but of course she didn’t need to, she’s in a position to enforce statutory measures.
There was a weird intensity to this free speech abuse, bringing to mind the wide-eyed fury of Islamic State agitators as they stamp on what they view as idolatrous texts and videos on the internet.
Then, in an extraordinary move, rather than defend itself Google bragged that it was spending hundreds of millions of pounds developing AI that could remove “extremist content” without a human even needing to look at it, and asked only that the State provide workmen to help pull it down — though they warned that what had been everyday articles, some up for years, seen by people as they browsed through academic sites and even news services, might suddenly be viewed as a poisonous presence by the computers, liable to promote terror and undermine stability. And so they will be memory-holed, in the black of night, exposing the febrile streak to this internetphobia.
Anti-internet freedoms agitation has been gaining ground for years. GCHQ want our ability to message in private removed. They describe the open internet as ‘problematic’, a word government zealots use in the same way Islamists say ‘haram’: to indicate something is wicked and should ideally be extinguished.
Theresa May says, “Industry needs to go further, faster, in automating the detection and removal of terrorist content online and developing technological solutions to prevent it being uploaded in the first place.” Despite the modern reference points there’s a medieval feel to this, this idea that even the ravings of teenagers have great power and evil in them. For a Prime Minister to describe free speech online as something to be censored and destroyed really is similar to ISIS hammer-wielders’ belief that pre-Islamic icons have the power to pollute men’s souls and thus must be destroyed.
Anyone who thinks this policing of the present will stop once all the most egregious examples of Islamic fundamentalism have been knocked down is in for a shock.
In Germany the Year Zero mob has turned its sights on Linksunten Indymedia (redefined as a terror organisation and shut down because it was cheerleading the G20 protesters in Hamburg this July). And in the US, the Department of Homeland Security has defined direct action anti-fascism as “domestic terror,” presumably meaning its advocates would be shut down by a Google AI.
So a historic necessity – the need to physically resist fascism to prevent it from becoming a murderous presence on our streets – is made unmentionable. It’s unremembered, erased, as surely as Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four must erase old newspaper reports about events that now embarrass the party. Today’s cleansing of “extremist content” smacks of the dark antics of that fictional Ministry of Truth.
The internet erasers claim they only want to protect how fair our societies now are. Rubbish. This isn’t about making the present better, it’s a projection of right-wing political correctness. It’s the punishment of free media – even good figures whose historic predecessors are now lauded, such as the 43 Group – for sitting on the wrong side of State-defined acceptability.
And it reeks of paternalism. The warriors against the internet like to present themselves as protecting the Freedoms of Our Western Democracy. But the State cannot be trusted to censor “extremism,” as this will inevitably lead to the cleansing of public life to the end of protecting certain groups from all consequences for their actions. An open internet is an expression of strength, relying on the State to police it for us is craven self-infantilisation.
Indeed, the idea that the people can’t cope with seeing dodgy things without GCHQ to hold their hand is an affront to our intelligence and autonomy. It makes children of us, suggesting we will feel physically wounded by images we don’t like. After all, ‘there is violence’ on the internet.
One of the great things about the internet is that it’s a patchwork of thought and nonsense from across all global cultures. Surf it long enough and you’ll see soldiers, politicians, authors, suffragettes and others who shaped our societies. And most of them will have held views or done things we would consider questionable in 2017. So what? The point is they make history, and it’s right for the public sphere to reflect that.
The logic of the Year Zero crew is that we should see only an internet they approve of (if there is one). They police the web with an eye for policing what we citizens can see and by extension think about the societies we live in. Their ongoing legal erasure of certain groups is really an instruction to us, the people, as to how we ought to think. It’s an intolerant imposition of ‘correct’ thinking. It’s a low, brutal form of censorship, and we should have no truck with it.
Brandon The Gnoll
This article tweaks (with surprisingly few changes beyond swapping “statue” for “internet”) a piece by Spiked editor Brendan O’Neill in which he moans that the left is destroying free speech because some racist totems are being pulled down and that “PC gone mad” is the scourge of free speech in the West. He hasn’t bothered saying anything about the most aggressive public State intervention against free speech online in years on the grounds of “preventing terror” at time of writing however, presumably because it doesn’t involve castigating students and might get him in hot water with people who actually have serious power. What’s the matter Brendan, bit shy of being labelled a terrorism-enabler?
If you’re reading this Brendan, your ‘hard nosed radical defender of freedom’ schtick is about as convincing as Theresa May when she drones on about providing “encryption backdoors” to the intelligence services without compromising general security. How many references to Linksunten Indymedia are on your site? Oh yeah that’s right, one focusing on bashing the left from your Germany correspondent. Biggest statutory attack on free speech by a Western power this decade and you barely cover it because you’re literally too busy defending cheap zinc statues dedicated to racists, by racists. Yutz.