By Elliot Fudge
The internet is the focal point of a new culture war. The ongoing battle on social media between the libertarian and authoritarian camps now resembles a political fight of its own, away from mainstream political discourse. As the conflict wears on though, it seems that the internet could soon fall under the jurisdiction of the state.
Jeremy Corbyn is the latest figure to wade into the online battleground, but he is by no means the first. Hillary Clinton, Justin Trudeau and Ed Miliband have also proposed similar guidelines or restrictions on what should be acceptable in online discourse. This year Labour MP Jess Phillips was abused by Twitter trolls; it was one event amongst many that have seen those with censorial instincts call for further restrictions on what is acceptable in online interaction. While the tweets themselves were condemnable by the majority, Corbyn’s digital manifesto, including a kind of internet passport, is not the solution to online trolling.
The internet is a wilderness. It is the greatest single source of information ever available to the public. It is also a tool which overwhelmingly hands power to ordinary people, rather than concentrating it in the hands of politicians. As such, politicians frequently take issue with it, but they are by no means the only ones to do so.
The anguished howls of frustrated authoritarians masquerading as moral social justice comrades are without doubt the loudest voices promoting censorship, both online and in reality. They have fooled politicians, celebrities and private companies into acting on their behalf before and it’s entirely reasonable to suppose they may do so again. We need only look to the fall of companies such as Twitter to observe what happens when the voices of the authoritarians manifest themselves into actions.
But just as markets, rather than the state, have historically been unifiers, so they shall be once again. So long as the internet is free of state intervention, market rules reign supreme. As one free speech platform dies from rejecting free discussion, another one rises in the form of Gab. Twitter, being the most notable example, appears to be in dire straits; with user growth stalling, share prices stagnating and the permanent suspension of a certain notorious right-wing “supervillain”.
As it currently stands, the internet remains a fairly competitive market in terms of ideas and free debate fuelled primarily by demand for open discussion. There is a kind of status quo in which both the libertarians and authoritarians have sites where their rules around free speech and free discussion are enacted.
The libertarian camps linger around sites such as Gab and Reddit where there is little censorship. The authoritarians cluster around sites like Tumblr and more mainstream social media outlets. In short, the market possesses just as much influence online as it does anywhere else and so long as the market is allowed to work, free from state interference, free speech and debate will always find an outlet.
Theresa May is hardly the ideal liberal conservative and although she has clearly made no attempt to wade into the internet debate there will always be some level of doubt, given her illiberal past. It does not take too much imagination to foresee a situation in the future where government is coerced in the name of racism, sexism or islamophobia to wade into the debate.
Labour and some of its MP’s have already voiced support for such an action. To project paternalistic platitudes such as safe spaces onto private companies would be a mistake. Free markets can create a more harmonious internet if they are allowed to do so. Indeed, they already have done on many occasions. State intervention on behalf of ‘hate speech’ would merely exacerbate the problem.
The internet will probably never be an entirely harmonious environment. Genuine racism, sexism and discrimination is of course deplorable, but the constant use of these terms as a smear has created an environment where almost everything is racist or sexist. Platforms as open as Twitter and Facebook will inevitably rope in genuine racists and sexists who can project their views into the ether.
However a far more common scenario is one in which something that is clearly not racist or sexist will often be said to be so. State interference on behalf of these sentiments would be a disaster. Some element of tolerance of a small minority of deplorable opinions must be used when engaging in online debate, rather than running to the state for the solution. If that isn’t enough, there is always the block button.
Elliot is an English student studying in Southampton.Follow him on Twitter: @
The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Conservatives for Liberty