By Neil O’brien
Last updated at 10:23 AM on 19th July 2010
The setting-up of a Facebook tribute page to the gunman Raoul Moat gave voice to a wave of emotion from some that surprised and shocked Britain.
The expressions of support and sympathy for Moat’s actions and the vitriol directed towards the police and his ex-partner revealed an astonishing disregard for both social norms and the rule of law.
The sheer hatred underlying some of the messages rendered them both too offensive to print in mainstream media, and simply incomprehensible to the vast majority of the public.
David Cameron captured this exactly when he said last week: ‘It is absolutely clear
that Raoul Moat was a callous murderer, full stop, end of story. I cannot understand any wave, however small, of public sympathy for this man.’
It is difficult not to be struck by how unequivocally the Prime Minister responded with his swift condemnation of the material on the site. We have almost become used to being a society where the default is ‘non-judgment’.
The last Government was particularly odd in this regard. It combined a desperate desire to avoid moral judgment with a hair-trigger willingness to pass all-encompassing legislation – sometimes to an absurd degree.
Mr Cameron did precisely the opposite; he didn’t rush to regulate, but he did provide moral leadership. As a result, common sense prevailed and the page has since been removed from the site.
But in this case, the issue is really something more than freedom of speech, which is so often the defence used by providers of platforms, such as Facebook, to justify internet content.
Yes, the internet is a wonderful thing, providing access to a wealth of information that was unimaginable even a decade ago. But there is a darker side, too.
We must protect the right of people to say what they wish, however unpalatable it may be. That more than 30,000 people apparently signed Moat’s tribute page – many of their messages were said to be deeply misogynistic and even an incitement to violence against the police – is something that we should be concerned about.
Even a few decades ago, people would have been totally appalled by the comments. But now they are seen as ironic or normal.
The internet, it seems, has become the Wild West of the written word. It is unregulated – or rather, the regulation does not appear to be enforced – in a way that would seem bizarre for any other form of media. As it stands, publishers, the printed Press and broadcasters are strictly regulated as to what they can say.
Any columnist or commentator expressing some of the sentiments on Moat’s tribute page would quickly – and justifiably – find themselves facing the wrath of the Press Complaints Commission or Ofcom, or even criminal investigation for incitement to violence.
Yet advocates of an unregulated internet commonly argue that blogs and social networking sites are no more than ‘e-age’ versions of a pub conversation. This is disingenuous. Rumours and gossip, slur and libel can be put up on the internet for anyone to see, and whizz round the world in seconds at the click of a mouse.
‘Going viral’ gives them the power to shred business, harm lives and ruin reputations.
Only last week, a judge warned jurors against researching cases on the internet after a teenager was found guilty of contempt of court for texting false rumours about a defendant to a member of the jury hearing his case.
It is damaging enough that people’s reputations can be unfairly maligned by internet gossip. But baseless rumours can leak into mainstream media.
It has been suggested that wall-to-wall coverage of the Moat case was influenced by views expressed on Facebook. When facts are thin on the ground, the mob mentality of some internet sites risks creating a false impression that the views of a vociferous minority are widely held or that fiction is fact.
Ask France’s First Lady and her husband Nicolas Sarkozy about the power of internet chatter. Earlier this year, speculation appeared on the social networking site Twitter that Carla Bruni had enjoyed a close relationship with a musician. This was rapidly relayed on other websites, and within a few days had appeared in newspapers and magazines in France, and picked up around the world.
Since the run-up to the World Cup, the web has been awash with lurid chatter about footballers, High Court super-injunctions and sex scandals.
This is where the analogy of the internet as giant pub conversation really breaks down. Pub conversations can be easily forgotten and brushed off – or the landlord can throw a boorish, rude customer out of the pub.
Others say the Raoul Moat internet shrine was no different from the flowers and cards left at the site of his death. Yet the cards and flowers are seen by few and will soon be cleared away. But once on the internet, the genie, so to speak, is out of the bottle.
However, we know the internet is not immune from the law.
Two years ago, company director Mathew Firsht sued over a mischievous Facebook entry. Retired teacher Jim Murray was awarded damages over a former pupil’s insults on Friends Reunited.
There have been successful prosecutions for copyright and data protection violations.
But they seem rare, and we appear resigned to applying different standards where the internet is concerned.
Part of the difficulty is that the worldwide web is just that – a jurisdictional nightmare where communications cross national boundaries and multiple time zones. Add to this the pace at which the technology develops and it is clear that internet regulation will continue to be a thorny issue long after this media storm has blown itself out.
Doubtless, the Moat scandal will not be the last to shock us. But it has been instructive. In a sense, the internet holds up a mirror to our society. It shows us some things we might have preferred not to see.
But draconian legislation is not the answer. The laws that frame freedom of speech in books, newspapers, magazines and on television – copyright, libel and incitement – all apply to the internet.
It is simply that it is a new and little-understood medium and there is little attempt, in general, to apply the law. And yet it can be done, as the record industry showed when it successfully prosecuted over illegal free downloads.
On top of the existing laws, there is the little-known Electronic Trading EC directive of 2002, which gives all of us the power to fight back.
The directive gives providers of sites such as Facebook immunity from prosecution only if they act promptly to remove offending articles from the web when a complaint is made. Thus, if we want a ‘cleaner’ internet, it is up to us as individuals to complain about offensive material. Websites such as Facebook make it a simple matter to do so and they are compelled by law to comply.
In the digital age, Government cannot legislate for every problem. On the net, as in real life, it is the responsible actions of individual people and communities that ultimately create a good society – not government regulation.
There are laws and regulations, but we don’t obey them only because there is a policeman on every corner .
It seems our Prime Minister has instinctively understood this new challenge and provided moral leadership, rather than ill thought-out legislation. It is up to us as a society of internet users to use the existing laws to get the worldwide web we would like to see.