Can’t see the wood for the degrees

There’s been some media debate over the last few days about web blocking, censorship and the like., most of which makes absolutely no sense and does not come from any informed position and does not put forward any practical (or sane) suggestions for how the relationship between mundane and virtual identities should be managed in a modern society. Like almost all political comment on the inter web in particular, the views are confused. Here’s a comment from our Shadow Media Minister.

I really feel at the moment that the web is a bit like the forest in the 14th century: it’s totally outside the law.

[From New Statesman – “The web is a bit like the forest in the 14th century: it’s totally outside the law”]

Now, obviously, there was no reason for Helen to pick up much in the way of the technology (or history) during her time reading PPE at Oxford, so I hope I not being mean by saying that she’s got this wrong. The reason why people escaped to the forest was to get away from an oppressive feudal system, so they did indeed represent a kind of freedom from tyranny, but the forests were not lawless: forest law, introduced by William the Bastard, was outside of the common law and exceptionally cruel. Poor people venturing into the forest to catch a rabbit could be executed. I’m sure Helen doesn’t mean that we live in a tyranny and the internet is the only place of escape, or that the internet is the preserve of the aristocracy and plebs should not be allowed in (since that plainly isn’t true). So what she must mean is that the internet is outside the common law. But this isn’t true. If you threaten to blow up an airport on twitter, for example, you will be tracked down and prosecuted.

When Helen is questioned further about her plan to end anonymity on the web, she says

There’s obviously also a big question mark about anonymity on the web. Of course, a lot of people blog and tweet under nicknames, and that’s OK, but what I do have a question mark about is whether you should be required to give your real name and address when you get an e-mail account, so that if someone’s a persistent offender, it would be easier to trace them

[From New Statesman – “The web is a bit like the forest in the 14th century: it’s totally outside the law”]

This reminds me of the brilliant plan by Derek Wyatt MP, the then chairman of the All Party Internet Group, who I wrote about in my “Second Sight” column in The Guardian way back in 2003.

[Wyatt] recently returned from a fact-finding trip to the US. He’s a man with a plan. To end spam, the government should legislate to make all email addresses contain their owners post code. I would become It is a cunning plan. If someone sends you spam, you can track them down.

[From Inside IT: Who has a plan to end spam? | Technology | The Guardian]

There’s been no obvious improvement in the quality of political thinking about technology in general and the online world in particular since the earliest days of the interweb tubes. Perhaps we should either force political parties to forgot about women-only shortlists have some science or engineer-only shortlists or perhaps enforce a parliamentary quota to limit the number of MPs who are PPEs or lawyers (lawyers are particularly damaging to the parliamentary system, because they are trained to win arguments not to find the correct solution to a problem).

What I found most disturbing, though, was when the interviewer asks Helen about one of the practical problems with her plan and is told “I haven’t really thought it through” which might stand as a motto for our entire political class.

Honestly. The quality of debate at the intersection of politics, culture and technology is pathetic.


In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen megabytes