Jonathan Weinberg writes…
It takes a lot to shock me and I thought – having worked on and with the internet for the past seven years – that I knew the majority of its positives and negatives. But I’m truly appalled by BBC1’s Panorama investigation into real-life violent videos uploaded onto the web.
Shown on the channel last night, reporters looked at the people who film the sickening scenes, those who have fallen prey to the stupidly named “happy-slapping” attacks (do you see the victims smiling?) and it also focused on the firms allowing such videos to be shown to millions of cyberspace viewers.
I’m well versed in the arguments about censoring the web. I’ve written plenty of stories where companies have told me “it’s not our job to police the internet” or “it is not our right to censor what people want to see”. So where should the line be drawn?
I’m sure Sir Tim Berners-Lee – the man credited with creating the internet – didn’t foresee a day when it would be used to show schoolchildren beating each other to a pulp, a young girl collapsing from a pounding, blood pouring from her body, or gangs with guns flashing them on screen for all to see.
In a speech about the web’s future given earlier this year to the United States House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce, Sir Tim said: “Robust technical design, innovative business decisions, and sound public policy judgement all require that we are aware of the complex interactions between technology and society. We call this awareness Web Science: the science and engineering of this massive system for the common good.”
He added: “So how do we plan for a better future, better for society? We ensure that both technological protocols and social conventions respect basic values.”
Now what better basic value is there than ensuring the internet is not used to harm people.
I was sickened by what the BBC investigation found and the debate about what kind of society we are breeding is another argument. But to allow technology to be used to fuel such events is just plain sick, and like extreme pornography is subject to stringent rules and regulations, it’s time for the Government to step up to the plate and investigate ways of banning such films from being uploaded and broadcast.
I’m all for freedom of expression, but this cannot be justified when it comes to these videos. As Lord Taylor of Warwick said on Panorama, people are committing a criminal offence carrying out these beatings, so why on earth should it be legal to show them?
In the same speech, Sir Tim ended by saying the web should not become controlled by a single company – or a single country – but the internet has grown out of all recognition over the past decade and measures to police it are severely hampered by its international nature and differing legal standpoints across the globe. What’s right in one country, is wrong in another and by registering sites in countries with less stringent laws, anyone can attempt to evade their responsibility and make money out of this misery.
Forget tabloid scare stories, this stuff is real, it’s out there now – I know because I’ve just found a load of them with a couple of clicks and a few simple search terms.
And we should all be concerned because eventually the backlash will get so big that it will become impossible to ignore. And then they’ll be all sorts of knee-jerk reactions and ill-thought out laws passed that instead of tackling this problem head on, cause a chain reaction of problems for the every internet user.
While I don’t believe Government intervention to always be the best way, companies allowing the posting of such images are surely as complicit in the attacks as those filming them. They rightly wouldn’t allow videos of child pornography, so why is it right to show children being battered?
They claim self-censorship is the answer, putting the viewer in charge of reporting footage they find offensive to then be viewed and taken down if moderators deem it appropriate. But as Panorama found, what is acceptable varies widely and while scenes of dog-fighting were removed from one site, it allowed a video showing a youngster brandishing a gun.
The answer to this complex issue has to lie in the money trail. Very few people these days create a site on the web that’s not-for-profit. We’re all in it for the money, and that mainly comes from advertising revenue.
But what legitimate company wants to be advertising on a website that allows the publication of such savagery – however many millions of hits that site is getting. Panorama found many right-thinking firms weren’t even aware their ads were being shown on these channels, having been placed there by middlemen agencies.
Cut off the revenue stream, and you cut off the website’s lifeline. Then the bosses and shareholders will soon sit up and take notice as their profits start to take the sort of beating these poor kids and adults are having to endure in the name of “web entertainment”.