Monday, 19 November 2012

Quo tendimus interretium? How an internet Magna Carta could mean the end of 'trolls' and bad spelling.

Some months before the general election a tiresome blog, purportedly written by 'Jacob Rees-Mogg' appeared on the internet. This badly spelled, clearly fictional nonsense, was widely assumed to have been written by myself. It was in fact the work of a student at Bath 'University'. After considerable cost, my lawyers managed to track this chap down and make him sign an affidavit agreeing to cease publication of this irreverent drivel. One hoped that the message would 'get out' and that my experience of 'lampoon by internet' was over; unfortunately it was but the beginning. Over the ensuing years a cacophony of fake twitter accounts, blogs and even 'Wikipedia' entries rang forth from the web. Of these assaults, the 'Wiki' nonsense was perhaps the most distressing. This so-called 'encyclopedia' at various times described me as a 'world expert on lettuce', a champion beer barrel roller, a founding member of the Keynsham 'Hell's Angel' chapter and an authority on the life of 'Nick Kershaw'. I confess that prior to this last 'alteration' I had never heard of Nick Kershaw, let alone been troubled with the details of his life. 

Almost every innovation in history has brought with it a cavalcade of annoyance to those in positions of power and influence. From the moment Ts'ai Lun, a first century eunuch in the Chinese Emperor's court, invented paper it caused chagrin. The new medium, cheap, flexible and durable, was perfect for spreading tittle-tattle and Lun himself was eventually hoisted by his own petard. Implicated in court intrigue, he was moved to dress in his finest silken robes and drink from a poisoned chalice. I confess that in my darker moments, I have occassionaly wished that 'internet trolls' would take a leaf out of the irksome eunuch's book.

The invention of 'social networking sites' coupled with a growing 'work from home' culture and increased unemployment, has created a 'fish-wife' phenomena wherein millions of time rich individuals can lean on a virtual garden fence and exchange slander, rumour and 'ideas'. Where once opinions were the preserve  of trained 'journalists', politicians or mutually agreed 'sui generis', now anyone with a computer and fingers to type is able to express an idea, write a sentence, or abuse those who can. 

Melanie Phillips has described this phenomena as tantamount to 'a sadistic mob rampaging across the web' and certainly I could not put it better myself. Those familiar with the 'twittersphere' have long sensed that there was a 'McAlpine' moment coming. As the good Lord has now had his name cleared and is very sensibly pursuing anyone who 'retweeted' this libelous nonsense with extreme intolerance, we might now pause, reflect and ask quo tendimus? Or where do we go from here?

It is clear that the 'internet' can no longer be covered by acts of law. The Rubicon has been crossed and we are in need of something much greater. An electronic 'Bill of Rights'; a 'Magna Carta' for the technological age. I have yet to thrash out the articles of this grand project and would welcome ideas from anyone with expertise, but most sensible people would probably agree on the core principles:

  • An end to anonymity on the internet;
  • A stricter adherence to the rules of the land in which the 'author' is writing or in which his words might be read;
  • The introduction of a licensing system for bloggers or those engaging in social media. Users could perhaps start with three 'points' and lose them should they act without due diligence or care; once lost the person in question might be banned or forced to take a test before 'logging on' again;
  • Stricter rules about who can blog or tweet and a tightening of regulations pertaining to persistently poor spellers;
  • Internet courts, where legal issues relating to the web could be quickly decided by 'web magistrates' and justice meted out.
There may be those among you who feel this to be an over-reaction. There may be those who have yet to suffer the fall out from a 'twitter storm' or the dreadful public humiliation that comes when one is told one is 'trending'. To such people I say hodie mihi, cras tibi. To the rest I bid good day.

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