21 September 2012

Being offensive on the net

In Britain there are an increasing number of arrests and convictions of people who have expressed “offensive” opinions on the net.

At a moral level it is utterly impossible to defend people who gratuitously insult others on-line. For that reason many otherwise right-thinking people will remain silent in Britain when idiots who scribble illiterate insults end up in police stations, courts and prisons.

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 people, threaten them, blackmail them etc., then, yes, you do something everybody would recognise as a 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? The answer seems to be that what motivates these prosecutions and the consequent imposition of disproportionate punishment is a state strategy of intimidating free expression on the net.

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


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