The Internet Is Speech, The Internet Is Books. The Attorney General Is Wrong. #rant /cc @guy_herbert

Last night I lampooned the Attorney General’s recent statements, and this morning the good and noble Guy Herbert picked me up on it:


Guy is absolutely correct – he has also identified what I consider the proper function of hyperbole: as an adjunct to satire. Let’s look at what Guy said, which I consider to be right:

There is a real problem here: how to manage fair trial.

Agree 100%.

Internet creates new difficulties.

Also, agree 100%, although I would say challenges. Now let’s compare this to what the Attorney General is quoted as saying, the cited body of which I consider to be illiberal, dangerous and uninformed.  The first three words:

“Trial by Google”

Wrong. Google are not trying anyone and this is a misrepresentation; however if he’d said:

Open access to the corpus of the world’s historical communication and comment offends the principle of open justice…

…then there would doubtless be a public stink about his lamenting the lack of either the network-illiterate (hence my lampoon) or of adequate censorship; the AG continues:

“…offends the principle of open justice. It should be clear to the defendant, the public, the victim and the prosecution what the evidence in the case is.”

In my industry we fix this issue using a “scope document”, a list of what you are expected to do and consider and anything not on that document is to be beyond your consideration.

One of the keystones of the British judicial system is the notion that jurors are incapable of ignoring information when reaching a verdict and thus must be kept ignorant of broader context. This is the issue at hand: either we must adapt the system or get better jurors.

Dominic Grieve / the AG, however, seems to prefer whinging about the Internet and Web:

“If a jury is exposed to prejudicial material which, for whatever reason, is not before the court, the basis on which the defendant is convicted or acquitted will never be known.”

…yet for some reason, when information does leak, judges are permitted to wag their fingers and tell the jury that they must not consider such-and-such information when reaching a verdict; but the judiciary clearly consider this to be a kludge rather than an acceptable way forward.

I would now like to see the full text of Grieve’s speech; perhaps later today I shall peruse the Internet in search of it, possibly using Google in the process.

And that is the point. The Internet is now a pre-existing condition but the judiciary – indeed all of the pillars of state – repeatedly and in offhand ways demonstrate their complete misunderstanding of its nature. The Internet is not a thing.

The Internet is communication.

The Internet is speech and the Internet is… books.

Yes! Let’s bend grammar and say that the Internet is speech and books – it is clearly more than one book and it is not a “library” because that would be a place and would invoke the internet-as-space metaphor which I debunk elsewhere.

So we are all now learning to speak TCP nation unto nation and we are learning to locate and read all these books that are somehow spontaneously kicking around in our laptops and smartphones.

Anyone or any organisation who says that the ability to speak and the ability to read – that the existence of an educated, engaged and communicating populace – is a problem, is wrong. To even suggest such is to betray Machiavellian sentiment, and Niccolo – gawd bless ‘im – was writing a book about what was good for the prince and not necessarily for the people.

Hence my issue with the Attorney General, and with the State’s metacontext of the Internet.

UPDATE: Earlier version of this article en-passant named the AG / the author of the speech as Starmer (DPP) rather than Grieve (AG); Brainfart, fixed. Thanks @millymoo. That’s what I get for typing with insufficient caffeine.

4 thoughts on “The Internet Is Speech, The Internet Is Books. The Attorney General Is Wrong. #rant /cc @guy_herbert

  1. gregorylent

    a good example of just one of the systemic problems in our old-paradigm institutions ..

    it’s time to understand that our earlier creations don’t fit current or future reality, and redesign, with intention, consciously.

    thanks for post

    Reply
  2. paulclarke

    I think you react a little strongly in a couple of places. The AG didn’t phrase things particularly well, but what he’s asking for isn’t ignorance, nor censorship, but a modification of behaviour (the wish to seek out knowledge) in the carefully controlled (and necessarily artificial) environment of a court.

    If we remember that the only two things the internet has changed about information are its indexability and its ease of access, the better analogy would be to ask jurors not to pop down to the pub by the scene of the crime and have a few cosy chats with the denizens therein. No doubt these would provide “background information” on the suspect, the crime and whole lot more, but to do so would be clearly prejudicial to a fair trial.

    All the internet has done here is make the pub and its inhabitants easier to find, and to allow this to be done without leaving the comfort of the jury room (or hotel). Insisting on pain of contempt that these actions aren’t done can look a little clunky and weird, but it seems inevitable, and not a particularly onerous request.

    Reply
    1. alecm Post author

      modification of behaviour (the wish to seek out knowledge) in the carefully controlled (and necessarily artificial) environment of a court

      I can sympathise with that; as I replied to Guy on Twitter:

      Curiously I have no issue with Judges telling Jurists “you are not private investigators”. See “scope document” paragraph.

      …so if the AG wishes to avoid my discontent then all he need do is stop talking about “Trial by Google” and start talking about “Jurors overreaching their mandate”.

      I believe that’s fair?

      Stepping back, this is just another version of the “Cyber” debate; for some reason the magnitude of the internet makes people over-extend its relevance into thinking elsewhere; hence we have “cyberespionage” rather than “espionage”, and “cybercrime” rather than “fraud”.

      Amongst other flaws this thinking lends weight (and beneficial distratcion) to those who would rather control the internet – control communication – rather than fix core issues.

      Reply
  3. Dave Walker

    A further angle.

    Often, information about a case will find its way into the public domain, before a trial starts. I remember there being huge issues with jury selection for the OJ Simpson trial, in terms of trying to find candidate jurors who didn’t read the papers (other than cartoons and / or sports pages), or watch / listen to the news from mainstream media.

    I read a lot, love Flipboard and RSS feeds, and listen to Radio 4 a lot. I don’t actually use Google much, for news.

    However, the small print states that, in the event I have to go to trial under accusation of something, I’m entitled to be tried before a jury of my peers.

    I would argue that, if information about my impending trial has leaked such that it can readily be picked-up in the mainstream or technical media, then someone who hasn’t read about it, is no peer of mine.

    Therefore, it’s the process that needs fixing.

    Reply

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