‘Enjoy the internet responsibly’

By Jan Żeber

Social networking sites are a bit like cheap lager. They are an integral part of the western world. Most people use them, some overdo them. Occasionally they become a medium of an unpleasant situation, and sometimes of a tragedy – my deepest condolences go out to the parents of Hannah Smith.

What used to be confined to the darkest circles of cyberspace, or at least to adolescent slang, ‘trolling’ is now at the forefront of the national debate.

Twitter is under heavy fire following abuse of several prominent women, including Caroline Criado-Perez, a feminist campaigner, and Stella Creasy, a Labour and Co-operative MP for Walthamstow – the pressure is mounting for increased abuse reporting tools, which culminated on August 4 with a daylong boycott of the website.

But the situation reached a boiling point when Hannah Smith, a teenage girl from Lutterworth, committed suicide after a string of abuse on a social networking site Ask.fm telling her to kill herself. David Cameron called for boycotting of such sites, major companies pulled out their adverts and Hannah’s father stated he holds Ask.fm responsible and that he will ‘not rest until the site is safe for children’.

‘Trolling’, ‘cyber bullying’ and general offensive behaviour on the internet is a real problem, especially among young, vulnerable people who are likely take anonymous remarks to heart. As a social phenomenon, it is also a worrying indicator, possibly of a society which went too far with emotional correctness.

I’m concerned, however, that the debate surrounding this issue has degenerated into hysteria. What is baffling to me, however, is why it is the sites that get most stick these days and not the people who use them in such immature and often sick manner.

Sites like Twitter and Ask.fm can be thought of as platforms and speaker stands – and as such cannot be held responsible for what they are being used for. If, for example, we choose to spend our Sunday afternoon at the Speakers’ Corner but, having got there, find we are feeling upset by what is being said, we put down the orator as an individual we want nothing to do with then move to look for another one or leave altogether, if we find nothing to our taste.

It would be unreasonable to feel any resentment to Speakers‘ Corner itself, let alone publicly advocate a boycott or censorship measures – like Twitter, Facebook and Ask.fm, it merely provides space/servers with a policy that anyone can come/sign up and speak, but also everybody is free to leave and there’s no obligation to stay. If they have no power over who is speaking and what is being said, nobody is forced to listen, and those that do listen do so of their own free will, then the social networking sites/the Royal Parks authority cannot be guilty of it’s effects.

The issue at heart of this affair is one of responsibility. Many people feel that, just as a police officer would theoretically protect us if we were faced with abuse of any kind on the street, the government, ISPs and webmasters have a similar obligation towards us when we venture online.

Internet safety standards are heavy on PM’s agenda, and it seems that Cameron is pushing the image of being the keeper of our children’s online virtue – the plans for pornography opt in filters enforced on major internet providers will take place in 2015, where every new broadband connection will have a default block on pornographic material, which can only be disabled by an adult.

There’s no doubt that, just as the real world, the internet is inhabited by all kinds of people and has its dark alleys. But I wish that more faith was granted by the government and in particular the PM to the judgement of ordinary internet users such as you and I.

We don’t need to be heavily sheltered from the influence of unpleasant individuals, we can deal with them ourselves, be it by meeting them head on and retweeting their abusive comments, a great trend started by Ms. Criado-Perez, or simply by ignoring the emotional outbursts of some 16-year-old yet to learn how to use anonymity responsibly. This is important so as not to discourage new social networks from appearing in fear of crushing regulation or being blamed for the content posted.

The new broadband filters may not seem like much and there’s no doubt that care must be taken when letting children use the internet, but who is David Cameron to tell us that we can’t be trusted to talk to our kids about what the internet is really like, or to set up the filters ourselves, already available from ISPs and browsers? Then there is the issue that these filters don’t just block porn, but also extremist, violent, suicide, smoking, alcohol and esoteric related content. Where do we draw the line for those?

Cyberspace, just like Carling, is accessible to all, lifeblood of some, been a ruin of many-a-poor boy and houses many demons. But generally harmless if you know how to handle it, and a bad experience will leave you wiser.

Jan is a Polish national in his second year studying law at the University of Bristol.