27 March 2012

Twitter criminals: useful idiots

The prosecution of writers of racial and gratuitously offensive comments is a cover for the British state in its attempt to stiffle free expression on the web.

At a moral level it is utterly impossible to defend people who gratuitously insult others – and make matters worse by adding racist abuse. For that reason many progressive people will remain silent when idiots like Liam Stacey are jailed for doing just that.

Yet we should stop and raise two issues: one a matter of principle, the other of policy.

As a matter of principle, no-one should face legal sanction merely because s/he has said something offensive. If you harass somebody, threaten them, blackmail them etc., then, yes, you commit a legitimate crime. But merely expressing an opinion, however obnoxious, should not in itself be a crime. That is an essential ingredient of free speech.

Let us ask a question about state policy. Why is the state so pro-active in clamping down on Twitter insults, when it cares so little about the economic well-being or political liberties of ordinary people in general?

It is far more credible to think that what motivates this kind of prosecution and the imposition of disproportionate punishment is a state strategy of intimidating free expression on the net. The claim to be fighting racism is the pretext.

Nothing makes that point more clearly than a case which came to light just as Stacey began his prison sentence; London police officers were recorded racially abusing a black suspect, yet the IPCC and CPS have dragged their feet and have so far declined to prosecute. The contrast with Stacey’s case could not be starker.(see details)

Twitter and similar technologies are highly effective means of communication for ordinary people, but they are also excellently tailored for state surveillance and manipulation of all who use them.

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