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Until Politicians Make the Effort to Understand the Internet, They Must Leave it Alone

As Carmine Falcone says to Batman, “This is a world you’ll never understand. You always fear what you don’t understand”. David Cameron has little in common with the Caped Crusader, other than a submissive sidekick who is yellow on the outside and red underneath. The other thing our Prime Minister does share with the Dark Knight, however, is that base human emotion: fear of what he does not understand.

In the first two weeks of 2015 we have already seen several chilling examples of the state seeking to curb freedom of expression on the internet. Yesterday, Cameron committed the Conservative Party to introducing “comprehensive” legislation to further extend internet surveillance laws. Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, summed up the Tory position: “I’m not interested in this civil liberties stuff. If they’re a threat, I want their emails and calls listened to”.

How best to reconcile security and freedom is obviously one of the more complex questions facing governments, but dismissing civil liberties in the way Cameron and Johnson have is really quite nefarious.

The civil liberties group Big Brother Watch makes the very good point that what security services really need is more resources to adequately carry out the job they are supposed to be doing at the moment, rather than new powers to extend what they are allowed to do.

Security services will always want more money and powers, but if politicians better understood the internet perhaps they would conclude that while the spooks have too little of the first, they already have enough of the second.

Yet, patently, politicians do not understand the internet. Put on the spot during a Q&A about Snapchat, a mobile app used mainly by young people to send pictures, Cameron threatened to ban it.

The PM says he wants to prohibit any “means of communication between people which even in extremis, with a signed warrant from the Home Secretary personally, that we cannot read”, which would include the auto-destructing messages of Snapchat. Hardened ISIS fanatics will be reeling from the news that they won’t be able to plot jihad by sending six second selfies.

Then there is the even more sinister behaviour of the Electoral Commission, the body which regulates elections in the UK. Under the guise of Cameron’s shoddy Lobbying Act, they have written intimidating letters to political bloggers warning them they have to abide by new rules dictating what they can and cannot say.

Every blogger approached by the Commission has publicly renounced the move which, in this week of all weeks, with freedom of speech at the top of the agenda, is spectacularly ill-judged. Again, the people in power simply do not understand the internet. There is no conceivable way the blogs they approached would have reasonably fallen under their remit, and the bloggers would never have complied even if they had.

The ignorance has already spread from high office to other arms of the state. A now infamous tweet by Police Scotland two weeks ago warned: “Please be aware that we will continue to monitor comments on social media and any offensive comments will be investigated”.

The idea that “offensive comments” warrant investigation by the police should horrify anyone wanting to live in a free society. The journalist Katie Hopkins found herself being probed by the cops for being rude about Scottish people, despite there being 77 unsolved murders in Scotland and clearly many better things that the Scottish police could be doing with their time.

As with all parts of society, there are people on the internet who do bad things. But, before the advent of the internet, governments did not stop terrorists by tapping the phone of every citizen in the country. They did not catch criminals by reading every letter put in every post box.

Just because politicians do not understand the internet, it does not give them the right to impinge on the freedoms of every person who uses it. If they want to come up with serious policies about how to stop the bad things that happen online, they first have to make the effort to understand how the internet works.

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