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With a focus on open source and digital rights, Simon is a director of the UK's Open Rights Group and president of the Open Source Initiative. He is also managing director of UK consulting firm Meshed Insights Ltd.

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Leveson Regulation To Impact Social Media?

The hidden dimension of the Royal Charter discussions post-Leveson is they quietly create a big new stick to punish social media users. Revenge on whistleblowers?

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Alec Muffett points out that the new Royal Charter being rushed through the UK Parliament includes some drafting that appears to drag blogs, Twitter and other social media into the penalty net.  This is an extremely worrying development that needs rapid response from the meshed society of citizen creator-consumers (that almost certainly means you if you're involved in open source).

Unpacking all the nested definitions in the draft Charter, a person who:

  • publishes in the United Kingdom or for an audience mainly located in the United Kingdom 
  • news or information about current affairs or
  • opinion about matters related to the news or current affairs or
  • gossip about celebrities, other public figures or other persons in the news,
  • a website containing news-related material (whether or not related to a newspaper or magazine)

falls within the remit of this Charter as a "relevant publisher". This is the only clear scope I can find in the whole proposed regulation.  Yes, that clearly includes my blog, Twitter, public posts on Facebook and pretty much any other social media channel. I do not believe this is a drafting error; I believe it's an intentional gag on whistleblowers and individual attention, on anyone who doesn't have a boss someone powerful can call to have them shut up.

Of course, the proposals have no regard for this meshed world of creator-consumers. All the thinking revolves around Big Media, so there's no representation for me or you in the regulatory body it creates, nor accommodation for the realities of the meshed society we inhabit. By including the new meshed world of creator-consumer citizens into this measure intended as a leash for dinosaurs, nothing is achieved in terms of realistic regulation. 

But a new, deadly weapon is created to allow the rich to chill and punish any of those creator-consumers who dare to challenge them. When an established publication publishes a diatribe, they provide an umbrella for its author to shelter them from the new threats made available through this new regulatory mechanism. They are already pretty good at shielding authors; as long as they have jumped through the new hoops and behave reasonably, there's not much more threat here than before.

But when the same writer tweets an opinion, or when I post my opinion about it on my personal blog, this new regulation allows the well-resourced members of the media elite to subject us to weapons tuned for deterring the Murdochs of this world. The penalties involved are out of all proportion to any harm as well as way beyond your and my means even to buy insurance, let alone to pay.

Just the threat that we might get dragged into this Star Chamber for the stars would be enough to chill most of us. Until they were caught public figures, politicians and police were quite happy with the old arrangement, under which they and journalists committed illegal acts that benefited both sides. I'm sure those same people will be pleased to see a new arrangement that can be used to shut us all up, in prison if not in word.

You say such an abuse could never happen?  Tell Paul Chambers. Tell the security researcher imprisoned today in the USA for longer than teenage rapists under a similarly "misdrafted" regulation. Tell the family of Aaron Swartz, hounded to his death by over-empowered investigators. Legislation aimed at powerful people and corporations kills people like us when it's misapplied.

The problem is not regulation; it's that the politicians appear to have bought the acquiescence of the media industry to this limited restraint on their abuses by providing them with a new way to prevent inconvenient independent expression from further eroding their power. As Nick Cohen wrote in The Observer, "Did you not notice that Leveson hurt no one in power?"  The big story here is not erosion of press freedom; it is rather the chilling of the voice of the citizen.

Follow Simon as @webmink on Twitter and Identi.Ca and also on Google+.

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