Friday, February 12, 2010

Language and mindsets, religion and terrorism

I've been thinking recently about the kind of traps in thinking that we can get infected with due to the nature of our modern, short-attention-span driven media and politics and the language that is used by broadcast and newspaper journalists, commentators and politicians.

I wish, for example, that people would stop using the term 'Islamist' in the context of terrorist activities. Using the word 'Islamist' as a pseudonym for 'terrorist' creates a disproportionate, tension-inducing and misleading mindset, connecting the extreme activities/beliefs of the few with a particular set of religious beliefs of a large number of people, in this case Muslims.

The meme:

Islamist = Terrorist

is a significantly destabilizing one in our society. Demonising over a billion people because of the actions of a few extremists - and statistically speaking the proportion of terrorists in the world is absolutely tiny - gets innocent people hurt. And remember if those tiny number of terrorists succeed, with the unintended aid of the media and politicians, of causing the non muslim population of the world to fear the muslim community, then the terrorists are winning. Because that is what terrorism is all about - spreading fear and consequent instability.

In the late 1980s or early 1990s, I can't remember exactly when, I was once asked by a work colleague in the aerospace industry, at a time when the 'Irish' = 'Terrorist' meme was still infecting people (and I quote):

"Why do you Irish people kill our British soldiers?"

I had known the guy, or thought I did, for several years and clearly this question had been nagging him for some time. I was sufficiently shocked and irritated that I told him that perhaps the question he should be asking, since the people of Northern Ireland were British citizens*, was "Why do British people kill British soldiers?" That wasn't at all well received but then I still proceeded to attempt to explain something of the historical tensions between Ireland and Britain and within Ireland and Northern Ireland; and that when you create a society where there are internecine tensions and fears and you provide various opposing factions with arms, then all kinds of innocent people get hurt, even by those nominally on their own side, as in the case of so called 'friendly fire'.

My questioner had absolutely no interest at all in the history lesson and got extremely angry at my complete slur on the army - how dare I suggest British soldiers would hurt each other, even by accident. He demanded that I name the names of every British soldier that had fired on or hurt a colleague. When I said that wasn't the kind of information I carried around in my head, he concluded that not only had I grossly slandered the UK's fighting forces but that I was lying and clearly an active supporter of terrorists determined to continue killing soldiers. (As it turned out there had been an incident between a couple of soldiers on the streets of Northern Ireland a few weeks prior to our conversation but I don't recall if the name of either party was released.)

Neither one of us came out of the encounter either too happy or with much credit and I don't suppose our friendship was ever the same again but when the 'certain community' = 'terrorist' meme takes hold then it can lead to all kinds of corrosive effects.

Now I generally oppose censorship and to a large degree buy into the US founding fathers concept underlying the first amendment to their constitution (gauranteeing freedom of expression) that I might disagree with what you say but nevertheless defend your right to say it. Heaven knows I've been on the receiving end of enough censorship from software filters over the past 8 years which label my blog a sex site because of the triple x in the title and the url.  But the kind of nuanced public debate envisaged by the founding fathers where 'bad' speech would be tackled head on and overcome by 'good' speech seems, sadly, not to be possible in today's world. 'Bad' simplistic memes, like 'Islamist' = 'terrorist' have just as much and sometimes more staying power than 'good' memes, such as 'most people regardless of creed, race or religion' = 'decent'.  As Deborah Lipstadt has said:

"Reasoned dialogue has a limited ability to withstand an assault by the mythic power of falsehood."

I made a hash of attempting a reasoned dialogue with my friend but we never got past his complete belief in the false idea that 'Irish people' wanted to kill British soldiers.

Much deeper dialogue is possible and indeed happens on the Internet than through conventional news and broadcast media. Witness, for example, Jack Balkin's amazing blog where, freely available, we get the kind of contempory analysis of US politics and law from the top legal scholars of the day that no news organisation in the world produces. Simplistic memes, however, also often spread more widely and faster on the Net.

Where does that leave us in the context of my specific concern over the current 'Islamist' = 'terrorist' false meme?  Well we could make a small start by simply asking responsible news organisations to stop using the word 'Islamist' as a pseudonym for 'terrorist'.  Is this censorship?  Possibly (but I don't really want to get the political correctness police on the case as that tends to lead to counterproductive backlash).  Or is it a suggestion to encourage better, more neutral, news reporting language? Is encouraging the use of better language censorship?  Perhaps but if that's what it takes to impede the spread of and begin to cure the infection of the noxious 'Islamist' = 'terrorist' meme then in this limited and very specific instance I'm for it.

* Just to clarify, people of Northern Ireland are also entitled to Irish citizenship and to hold an Irish passport.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Ross Anderson on security and the Net

Ross Anderson talking buckets of common sense for the BBC about security and the Net:

It's a pity more of Ross's contribution wasn't included in the final broadcast of The Virtual Revolution: The Enemy of the State. We don't know if the teenager interviewed by Dr Krotoski was involved in the attacks on Estonia as he claims for example; but as Ross says the key element of the story was not a group of teens engaging in a simple network attack but the poor state of the Estonian critical systems security.  The BBC has made available a transcript of the interview with Ross and some of the other rushes from the programme.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Why did Ofcom back down over DRM at the BBC?

Cory Doctorow is in fine form over at the Guardian today.

"So when Ofcom told Auntie that it hadn't made the case for DRM, that the social harms outweighed the benefits, and that it wouldn't allow the BBC to add DRM after all, it seemed like the regulator had really stepped up to do its duty: protecting the public interest, protecting the rights of disabled people, protecting the rights of British firms to field innovative new devices into the British marketplace.
And then Ofcom caved. In its latest consultation on the matter, Ofcom takes it as a given that the BBC will be allowed to add DRM to our licence-funded television signals. Instead of asking whether there is a case for DRM, Ofcom offers up a string of "have you stopped beating your wife yet?" questions, like, "Do you agree that the BBC's proposed approach for implementing content management would safeguard citizens' and consumers' legitimate use of HD content, and if not, what additional guarantees would be appropriate?"
Did you catch that? Not "Can DRM be used to safeguard legitimate uses?" but rather, "Which DRM should we use to make sure this happens?"
[...] the BBC has been told by its licensors that they won't allow their programmes to be aired in high-def without DRM... But how credulous do you have to be to take a threat like this seriously?
[...] The FCC caved, just like Ofcom...
So we sued... 
The court agreed with us. They recognised that being a telcoms regulator doesn't give you the right to regulate receivers and the devices they connect to. The Broadcast Flag died before it could be enacted."
Brilliant as ever.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Copyright v Privacy Case heading for Norwegian Supreme Court

From TorrentFreak:
"Should copyright holders be allowed to get the identities of Internet users behind an IP-address for private prosecutions, or should that ability be left solely with the police? That’s the key question behind a pivotal hit movie camcorder case which is set to move amid an unusual amount of secrecy to Norway’s Supreme Court...
Simonsen, a law firm which since 2006 had held a license to monitor alleged pirates and collect their IP-addresses, demanded that the ISP connected with the IP-address hand over the identity of the subscriber, something it had thus far refused to do. The request had the support of the Norwegian telecoms authorities which in this case made a special exception to the country’s Privacy Act, enabling the person’s identity to be handed to a group other than the police – if the court agreed.
On May 5th 2009, Simonsen received the decision from the court but the verdict was kept a secret from the public. Espen T√łndel said this was to prevent the possibility of evidence being spoiled. This lack of transparency caused an uproar"