Thursday 15 October 2009

Bloggers of the World, Unite! You have nothing to lose but your ignorance.

Well, Simon Singh won!

That is, he has been granted leave to appeal against Judge Eady's ruling on the meaning of his article. The actual appeal, let alone the libel case itself, have not yet gone through. Nevertheless, Mr Justice Laws couldn't have improved things any more than he already has. For example, he rules that the narrow, twisted interpretation of "bogus" ascribed by Eady - an interpretation Simon would have had to defend, which he did not mean and even the BCA did not hear as such - was a) giving too much weight to reputation and not enough to freedom of speech, and b) as the supercool Edd points out, contravenes Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights.

If you haven't already caught up with Simon, you can read Jack and Crispian's reports (sensible and silly respectively, both wonderful in totally different ways!), and Simon's statement.

What with this today, and the success of the Twitterverse yesterday in toppling Carter-Ruck's outrageous injunction, it's been an astonishing week for free speech. A cliche I hope not to get dragged into using too often, but I'd say it's also a historic week for the online community. Many commentators and articles are saying of Twitter and blogs: we did it, we did it! Richard Wilson's banana cake is probably the most famous banana cake ever to have burnt on the surface of the Earth; and the Guardian certainly fulfilled Cantankerous's hilarious predictions of a front page article! (Their total list of relevent articles is rather huge - nevertheless the editorial, and a report on Peter Bottomley reporting Carter-Ruck to the Law Society and asking Gordon Brown to investigate the situation, are probably my favourites.)

Richard Wiseman's Banana Cake, uploaded with kind permission! Good luck with your protest tomorrow, by the way - I wish I could be there, and I wonder if banana cake (hopefully not burnt) will become a national symbol and end up being eaten traditionally on protest days? I hope the bananas are Fairtrade!

As I remarked yesterday, I believe that in both cases the online community was a major catalyst in the sudden clearing of the silence-or-punishment clouds this week. Sure, bloggers can't influence the judges. But we can make others aware of issues which the powerful attempt to hide; we can give heart to the punished and the silenced; we can raise large campaigns, indignation, and petitions such as the Sense About Science one which led to interest from all three main parties. In both cases, laws themselves are being challenged. Laws which are heavier in this country than many: Carter-Ruck and their client Trafigura have attempted to silence Dutch and Norwegian media over Trafigura's activities, and the Norwegian press have simply gone ahead and published anyway!

But here in the murky, law-yoked UK, BBC Newsnight is still being sued, with astonishing claims of "irresponsibility". I was open-mouthed when I read that. If it is irresponsible of BBC Newsnight to announce to the world the harm the dumping of the sludge, then how responsible is it to do this dumping in the first place? Take your pick which is more responsible - look at the first link in this paragraph, and then at this document, which might be the Minton Report and sets out very, very clearly and simply the chemistry, laws, and health effects of these substances. The possible-Minton-report certainly downplays the health effects in comparison to the BBC, who report three deaths, and many miscarriages among women. How can £1,000 each, allegedly for hmmm-might-have-been-linked-thought-we-don't-think-so-diahrroea, etc., possibly compensate for deaths and miscarriages?

So, as you see, this is not just about freedom of speech, but its uses. Once or twice, disgruntled forum users have accused me of having no respect for freedom of speech when I have removed their obscene posts from the Galaxy Zoo Forum. I see a certain similarity with those who pry into the private lives (such as the breakdown of marriages) among the famous - which is what the laws protecting privacy were originally intended to address: a self-interested lack of distinction between what one feels like saying, and what desperately needs saying. Abuse of the former can end up backfiring and harming the latter.

It is a curious irony that huge corporations, which affect so many people's lives, but don't have feelings of their own, are often awarded so much more legal protection than individual people. Personally I would say there is seldom a case for writing reams about somebody's divorce. But when is there ever a case for a huge, powerful corporation being able to do harm in secret?

One good thing about Twitter is that it acts as a filter as well as a catalyst. Dross is ignored while good posts and articles are tweeted and retweeted: so much of what I read is what I would never have discovered without Twitter. The public's abilities are proven by citizen science and their contribution to the online world. In my opinion, we have proved that we can not only take a stand, but take a good quality stand too.

Therefore it is our responsibility to keep taking more stands. Carefully, choosily. Not in such a way that would get us all shut down too soon: that could all too easily happen. Not in a way that reduces free speech to "something we should have because we feel like it", though in many cases that is also true. Above all: something people have fought for, died for, endured prison and torture to get: because without talking openly about important things, no problems can be solved and no society can function. Historically it was students who led campaigns. Now us bloggers too are a force to be reckoned with. Let's connect, unite, and use our strength well.

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