A #cybersecurity reporting tip for journalists and other #HHLDN attendees – #johnreid #labour #cyberspace

Here’s a tip: if you’re reporting on cyberspace and cybersecurity, even in passing please don’t analogise “cyberspace” to an object or place in the manner that Labour’s John Reid recently did in the FT:


Cyberspace cannot be controlled any more than the sea. Joseph Conrad said the seaman with an undue sense of security “becomes at once worth hardly half his salt”. I am afraid that when Mr Harvey says “existing international frameworks can be applied to cyberspace too”, I feel our salt draining away.

I’ve written about this polemically elsewhere, but the really short synopsis is a simple equation:

cyber = internet = communication = speech

You may feel when buying something from www.amazon.com that you are surfing around in some kind of cyber shopping mall, but you’re not. You’re receiving information, you are sending information. You are communicating, and the word that is applied to the inhibition of communication is censorship.

Whatever your position on censorship – perhaps hate speech should be banned, perhaps it should be met with more, contrary speech, whatever – the problem with referring to the internet and internet communications as “cyberspace” or with (in this case) nautical similes is that you implicitly position the internet as a domain – a place suitable for state or military control – and you also inaccurately set your reader’s minds into that expectation.

I would hazard that:

1) It’s generally a bad idea to encourage or let military, police, or similar state entities become important in a position of censorship.

2) Such an expectation foments bad thinking overall; if we substitute references to “cyberspace” with the intentionally-silly-but-equally-accurate “telephoneworld”, you get technically correct government verbiage which seems somehow deflated:

The risks from telephoneworld (including the internet, wider telecommunications networks and computer systems) have been identified by the Government as a high priority risk.

The UK is facing an ongoing, persistent threat from other states, terrorists and criminals operating in telephoneworld. In less than 15 years the number of global web users has exploded from 16 million in 1995 to more than 1.7 billion today. British shoppers spent 4.4 billion online in August 2010 – up 15% on previous year, and telephone-crime has been estimated in the billions per year globally, with untold human cost. Therefore we must act now to protect the value we place in telephoneworld.

Reading the above you can clearly see that the quote is actually about “[bad] people talking to each other” – so when a Mafia don dramatically “holds meetings in cyberspace” in truth he is just talking to his thugs, just as a journalist might talk with a source, or an activist might talk with a dissident.

But you also see that statements supporting state control often frame cyberspace as being a place like the ocean, or the grimy city streets, or a terrorist state. Somewhere tangible, to be invaded or policed. The statements are framed in that way because that’s how the problem is often perceived by government – it’s a case of language shaping thinking.

But back to my first point: the internet is clearly not tangible. Hence the metaphor is bad.

So decide for yourself whether you want to encourage the government in its ability to inhibit people from communicating with each other, for whatever reason, and phrase accordingly.

In the meantime please remember: Cyberspace means Speech.

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