Friday, April 04, 2014

Can You Criticise Your Boss on Twitter and Keep your Job?



was interviewed yesterday by the Metro free newspaper on this point, following the onlineprotest tweets by many Mozilla employees in the US that they did not want a boss who had donated money to an anti-gay marriage fighting fund. In the US where freedom of speech is prized, employees not only successfully ousted their new boss,  but kept their jobs. In the UK, it might have gone the other way, with disconduct proceedings or dismissal not impossible!  The Metro were keen on me making a blanket statement that you either were or weren't sacked if you dissed your booss online but Pangloss was not so foolish. Instead I advised users out there not to vent about their work on open to air Twitter accounts but to save it for Friends locked Facebook, and if possible, to make sure you trusted everyone on that Friends list (including fellow workers who might clipe on you – or move them to a special no-read-work-stuff  list). 

  Think about putting a disclaimer on your Twitter account that your tweets are not those of  your employers, and even then, if possible avoid defamation, racist or hate speech or harassment, especially of co-workers. Remember the fate of the specially appointed 17 year old youth Police Commissioner who lost her £15K a year  job when the press started looking at her racist tweets! (Pangloss herself just went and guiltily put a long overdue disclaimer on her public Twitter feed @lilianedwards (to which co-writer Dr Ian Brown of the OII, said, what, would ANYONE EVAH think I represent the views of the University of Oxford? Only the employment tribunals , I replied..)

 For employers, be absolutely sure to have a fair and balanced Acceptable Use of Social Media policy in place; courts have already refused to back the sacking of a housing trust manager who made derogatory comments about gay marriage (again! Just avoid the topic online perhaps) when the in-house policy did not clearly tell him not to do this. Blanket policies forbidding all use of social media are also likely to be disregarded by the courts, since they ignore fundamental rights of freedom of expression and private life. Some professions have particular difficulties about giving away details of the job on Twitter or FB - try looking at ACPO's heavyweight guidance on use of social media for the police, for example.

 Pangloss coincidentally had been writing (as usual) an overlong tome with @mooseabyte on police surveillance of social media when the Metro rang,  and it has certainly opened her already jaundiced eyes. Absolutely everyone using public social media should always be aware that while  it may feel like only you and your mates care about what you had for breakfast,  in fact 100s if not 1000s of people may be listening to , monitoring and data mining you – including not only those who pay per tweet to attach the Twitter data firehose to their Hadoop servers, but , increasingly , the police. SOCMINT - social media intelligence - is the shiniest thing on the block and as yet the general consensus seems to be that anything that is said on unlocked social media, however small the intended audienbce, is fair game for the Old Bill. In fact the legal situatuion is a bit more uncertain, with recent ECHR case law pointing to the existnece of  areasonable expectation of privacy even in public spaces - which seems to apply by extension to things said or done on public social media. A rather more nuanced treatment of the subject can be found in the recent Demos report  on how police may sometimes need covert surveillance authorisation - eg when constructing fake profiles to gain access to locked profiles on facebook - but for an even more critical perspective , await Lachlan and my paper at the SSN Conf in sunny Barcelona!


Thursday, September 26, 2013

GikII in New Scientist! and went to the beach!



New Scientist, the leading UK magazine on science and technology, recently covered GikII, the world’s first law, technology and popular culture workshop, which has run annually for 8 years and is chaired by Professor Pangloss ie  Lilian Edwards of  Strathclyde’s Centre for Internet Law and Policy . The New Scientist piece (behind a paywall, but extract available here) covers questions raised at GikII such as whether a robot can libel you and what the legal and societal effects of teleportation might be, and reports in detail ongoing research by Lachlan Urquhart, now a PhD candidate at Nottingham co-supervised from CILP, into legal regulation of drones, as well as asking if in the future lawyers will be replaced by computers. Thankfully, the article concludes this is unlikely to happen any time soon!

Meanwhile, the most recent GikII, in Bournemouth in September 2013,  failed to provide the much looked forward to sun,  but there was sea, sand and salty deep fried objects to die for, as well as the usual intellectual frolics. I finally gave  the paper "Slave to the Algo-Ryhthm"  I'd been mulling on for what seems like years on Google, algorithms, competition, libel  and data protection  (only a week after reading a piece by Ute Kohl in IJLIT which does it all much better. Go thou and read it. )

Other papers I really enjoyed this year included newbie Andy Phippen's rant, sorry, treatise on why wi fi filters in Starbucks are not really the best way to "think of the children";  Anna Ronkainen on whether its better to print human organs in animals, via stem cells or just using lego, sticky back plastic and a 3d printer (I paraphrase, but not much); Andelka Phillips (also a newbie) on DIY genetic testing by email  (the consumer protection issues! trading standards will not know what has hit it - my mind reeled), Heather Bradshaw-Martin  (ditto, and also Oxford)  on the ethics of driverless cars (how would a Kantian car deal with the trolley problem? a Hegelian car?) ;  Lachlan Urquhart on the persistence of memory in a synchronic society (featuring "spimes" a word whose time has surely come); Chris Marsden on telegraphs, TEMPORA, the decline of the British Empire, Russian cablecutters,  and something about silkworms and zemblanity (oh don't even ask). And it was marvellous to have Technollama back in the fold.

Despite strong competition from Andres however, the winner of the Daithi MacSithigh Memorial Prize for Most Amusing Powerpoint (come back Daithi all is forgiven!) was Paul Bernal for combining privacy, autonomy and Disney Princesses - congrats Paul!

In short it was a vintage GikII. Next year you should all come!

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

What are the police for? Twitter, abuse and reporting buttons

Like most UK women of any sense, my first reaction on reading some of the vicious threats of rape tweeted at the likes of Caroline Criado Perez and Stella Creasy was a heartfelt desire to track down the perpetrators myself and slowly castrate them. In the real world however, such an approach is nearly as impractical as the suggestion by Andy Trotter, head of social media for the police, that Twitter sort itself out using its magic technology powers, so the police can go back to more important stuff.

"We want social media companies to take steps to stop this happening. It's on their platforms this is occurring. They must accept responsibilty for what's happening on their platforms," said Trotter, chair of the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) communications advisory group.
"They can't just set it up and walk away. We don't want to be in this arena. They are ingenious people, it can't be beyond their wit to stop these crimes, particularly those particularly serious allegations we have heard of over the weekend."

What exactly do we have police for, then, if not to investigate specific, repeated and documented crimes? Giving up on policing Twitter is no more defensible than abandoning  a town like, say, Walthamstow to the criminal elements.

For a senior policeman, Mr Trotter also seems sadly ignorant of the law. Even leaving aside the issue of threat of rape as a common law crime, which might involve some difficult issues of sufficiently proving intention (though not many), the Protection Against Harassment Act 1997, especially s 4(1) makes it very clear that two attempts to "cause another to fear that violence will be used against him [sic] " form a course of conduct which is a crime. In the Perez and Creasy cases there are apparently hundreds of such threatening tweets, many retweeted or screencapped.

 It is impossible to understand how police who went ahead with investigating cases which involved poorly framed jokes on Twitter can now say they do not have the money to take on genuine, vicious  and entirely humorless threats of rape. It seems much more likely that they fear  they do not have the technical ability to understand how to police the Net , or the resources, and are terrified, and also worried that having destroyed their credibility on the Net once (see below), things can only get worse. But in that case the remedy is to acquire expertise, not to retreat to a pre 1996 position of declaring the social Internet terra incognita where elephantine trolls roam.

The police want to offload the responsibility in its entirety  - and  the cost - on to Twitter.  But what exactly can Twitter do, even with the much demanded "Report Abuse" button, which they are now rolling out faster than planned? It can close accounts, but the trolls will simply open new ones, which can rarely be traced to their predecessor, as consumer Internet access uses different IP addresses every time, so IP blocking will merely remove some poor innocent from Twitter.

Blocking tweets with the word rape in them (or similar) will also block millions of innocent tweets, many by the very women embroiled in this debate. Blocking algorithms are not some magic Harry Potter like ward-spell, able to discern the evil in the hearts of men from 140 characters. Spam, for example, is relatively well blocked because it, and the bot accounts from which it comes, have certain very obvious  characteristics which can be easily made into automated filters: repeated words and URLs, accounts which have arisen very recently and have no or few followers. This is not true of the very wide range of abusive tweets. Machines don't understand natural language very well, let alone legalities like intention. And even counting abuse reports is likely to be used against the very women who are currently asking for it to to be brought in to protect them. And, finally, blocking threats of violence doesn't block those men, sometimes, actually carrying them out in real life. For this reason Twitter are right to still say that  :

"Twitter will investigate every report received, but if something has gone beyond the point of a personal conflict and has turned into credible threats, whether it be online or offline, you should contact your local authorities as they are in the best position to assess the threat and intervene or assist as necessary. "

FInally, the police are not the only ones at fault here. Over the last few days much of the media has seemed determined to pin the blame on Twitter alone - as an aside, could this be because Twitter is a danger to the failing industry that is broadsheet journalism? It is unclear - with the greatest respect to the women who have been through the mill in these cases - why they ever expected Twitter to be their main conduit to justice here . Twitter itself, even with its US free speech-oriented heritage,  has never asserted these tweets were protected or defensible speech. But for the reasons cited above it cannot do much. And it certainly cannot prosecute, caution, fine or jail.

So reports of real, serious online crimes, both in practice and on principle, should be made to the police who can investigate, prosecute and secure exemplar prosecutions - not left to private and erratic justice. The police have lost credibility on the Internet due to their bad handling of the Twitter joke trials and similar - now is their time to regain the trust of the online public, not to abandon them. Jane Fae sensibly suggests that Twitter implement the Report Abuse button to go straight to the police, as well as Twitter . This is a good idea, though Mr Trotter will not like it much.

But in the end the solution to all this is not the magic technology wand, nor, much, police crackdowns on the limitless swell of semi-anonymous trolls. It is to create a less misogynistic society where it does not occur to men, even a small minority of men, to try to silence uppity women by making vile threats to them, comforted and applauded by their bully boys supporters club . There are all kinds of issues here that need debated much more than a tweak to Twitter's reporting system: lad's mags with tits out, non reporting of rape, prevalence of  violent or objectified pornographic images of women (see last post!), education, the glass ceiling, the relativing silencing of women and girls in many public meetings, in schools, on TV, as presenters on serious media if not beautiful enough, even the portrayal of Parliament itself as necessarily full of braying, rude and ill mannered men. It's not an easy problem to start to address but waiting for the technology magic bullet is not helping anyone.


NOTE: I wrote here, as someone will no doubt remind me, that the police should be careful not to stifle free speech on social media by hasty prosecutions  using inappropriate laws which fail to correctly assess the norms of debate of the online world. There is no contradiction here. A tasteless but hasty one-off tweet to the world that (say) that British soldiers “should die and go to hell” is not hard to distinguish from a pattern of repeated specific and violent threats targeted at a particular woman. In the first the debate is about individual freedom of speech  and  norms as to w how we want discussion to be waged in public spaces, within a political context of discussion; in the second, the matter is of crime, violence, hate and fear, and in no way, in my view, having seen sample tweets re tweeted, about debate, or free speech. 

The recently released DPP's Social Media Guideliness recognise exactly this distinction and give clear instructions as to the prosecution of "credible threats of violence to the person or damage to property". .

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Death of Data Protection

While I'm reviving Pangloss, people might be interested to take a look at work in progress lecture I gave recently at the  University of Goettingen in Germany on "The Death of Data Protection" exploring ideas drawn from the failure of consent online; the rise of ubiquitous computing ; and the rise of Big Data. The video of  the presentation  (c 1 hour)  is now online  here, as well as on the university's YouTube channel here."  Comments welcome as this is fast becoming the central part of my upcoming (ha) book on European privacy law.

 

(NB above not = my book!)

The full slideset  is available on Slideshare.http://www.slideshare.net/lilianed/the-death-of-data-protection