Think of the censors
How a website satirising anti-paedophile crusades was taken down - because the UK police feared it could be interpreted as inciting violence.
On Monday 23 September 2002, a website that I am involved with – Thinkofthechildren.co.uk – suddenly ‘fell off’ the internet. It just vanished. I clicked refresh but it was gone.
‘How odd’, I thought, as I dialled the number of my web host, Host Europe. ‘Perhaps I’ve forgotten to pay my hosting bills. Or perhaps [chuckle] someone hasn’t realised that the site was intended as a satire on mob violence and has reported me up to the police for trying to incite a riot.’ Ho, ho, ho.
‘I’m sorry Mr Carr, we received a call from an officer in the Met’s Obscene Publications and Computer Crime Unit this morning asking us to shut down your site. Apparently someone complained that you were offering advice on setting up a mob…’ (Insert that sort of gaspy yelping noise your mouth makes when your faith in human intelligence collapses.)
Could it be that The Law – which I had so patiently studied at university and so vociferously defended in the face of ‘has the world gone mad?!’ Daily Mail editorials – had repaid my loyalty by evacuating its bowels in my mouth? A call to the police officer in question confirmed my fears.
‘Yes sir, I did ask Host Europe to shut down your site…. No sir, I didn’t have any kind of court order. I just had a look at the site and decided that could be interpreted as inciting violence.’
Yes officer – you’re absolutely right, it could. If the interpreter was the type of baying, inbred, placard-waving, tabloid-reading moron that the site was parodying. (See Thinkofthechildren) ‘Did you
look at the site?’ I enquired. ‘Yes sir.’ ‘And you did realise it was a parody?’. ‘Yes sir, but the complainant obviously didn’t.’
In hindsight, it was probably a little unfair of me to invite him to speculate at this point whether Jonathan Swift would have been able to publish his ‘Modest Proposal’ on the internet (had the internet existed in 1729), or whether it would have been interpreted as inciting violence towards Irish babies. And not just because comparing Thinkofthechildren with A Modest Proposal is like comparing Romeo and Juliet with Blind Date.
Instead I should probably have mentioned my right to freedom of expression under the Human Rights Act or something. But I was too angry to think straight – and in any case my point was clear enough: I was incensed at how easily the site had been taken down and I wanted it put back up. Right. This. Minute.
‘I’m sorry sir, I can’t actually make that decision. Host Europe were the ones who decided to take down the site – I only made an informal request. You’ll have to ask them if they’re prepared to reactivate it.’ In other words, in the absence of a court order, Host Europe could have told the Met to sod off. But it chose not to.
Instead, my friendly web host to whom I’ve paid thousands of pounds over the years complied with their informal request – much like a small puppy might comply with an informal request to ‘roll over’.
Of course, anyone who has seen the site will realise that the internet is not much poorer for its demise. It’s a moderately amusing satire on Britain’s tabloid-fuelled, ignorant mob culture but, so long as the News Of The World remains in circulation, it is unlikely to make much of a difference to anything.
The point is that, by guaranteeing authors the right to publish moderately amusing satire on the web – even when people complain about it – we also protect their right to publish other things that people might complain about – some of which could make a very big difference indeed.
For writers, satirists, campaign groups, political dissenters and oppressed minorities alike, the internet is a fantastic leveller. The White House has a website. So does Amnesty International. And so does the Pansexual Peace Party. Anyone with a modem and an opinion – popular or not – can shout it at the world and, providing no laws are broken, it’s up to the world to decide whether it’s worth listening to.
At least that’s the theory. In reality, all it takes is a quick telephone call (and possibly a follow-up fax) from the police and Bob’s your silenced cyber uncle. It’s the electronic equivalent of Fahrenheit 451 but without a commune of dedicated woodland-based volunteers memorising HTML for the benefit of future generations.
Anyway, the good news is that Host Europe, acting for the Obscene Publications Unit, has agreed to reconnect my web server, on the strict condition that I do not attempt to put Thinkofthechildren.co.uk back up in its original form. I have been warned by both the Metropolitan Police and Host Europe that if I do reactivate the site my server will be suspended immediately.
Call me obstinate – but the day the law and a spineless, Phillipa-Forrester-fronted ISP have the right to demand the removal of a piece of satirical comment – just because it might upset the very people it is targeting – is the day I gather up my skirts and jump in front of the King’s horse.
Despite many kind offers of free hosting, I have decided not to relocate the site to the USA, or Finland, or Antarctica. And, as the site does not break any laws, I won’t be making any changes to its content.
Instead, I’ve chosen to reactivate Thinkofthechildren.co.uk, without modification and without the permission of either Host Europe or the Obscene Publications Unit. Of course, the moment Host Europe realises what I’ve done, the law makes it liable as publishers and so it will almost certainly pull the plug again.
But I’m hoping that this time Host Europe will respect my right, and the right of every other electronic publisher, to publish controversial (yet perfectly legal) material on its servers without interference – and demand that the Metropolitan Police produces a proper legal warrant before they take any further action.
If not, then I suppose I’ll have to fight Host Europe – and the Obscene Publications Unit – in court. In which case, you might want to gather outside the court building waving placards, throwing eggs and shouting soundbite-friendly slogans about censorship. But that’s entirely up to you – I’ve done enough inciting for one week.
Paul Carr is described by Yahoo’s UK Directory as ‘this British writer’. Thinkofthechildren.co.uk is a personal project.
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