Every major advance in communication provokes an exaggerated response. Hardly had Johannes Gutenberg developed the art of printing masses in the 15th century than there was a widespread alarm about the kind of books and ideas that emerged from his invention.
There had to be & # 39; something & # 39; be done – and that usually led to some form of censorship or top-down regulation.
The same thing happens today. We have hardly been engaged in the explosion of social media for ten years – with everything that is glorious, liberating, creative, messy, threatening and hateful – and there are demands to spread the wings. Or even kill it.
Facebook prohibition: Marlene Weise was banned from Facebook for 30 days for posing the two photos of the Iranian national women's volleyball team in the 1970s in T-shirts and shorts and the current Iranian team covered in hijabs and clothing covering their arms and cover legs
Just as in 1487, the pope woke up to the dangers of mass communication and introduced censorship, so our own government has prepared a white paper describing the intentions to harden what the & # 39; online damage & # 39; calls. For some, it is a sufficiently proportionate response to the failure of the West Coast giants to clean up their own act.
For others, this means the end of the internet as we know it.
The White Paper is full of reasonably sounding proposals. The first sentence is: & # 39; The government wants the UK to be the safest place in the world to go online. & # 39;
Those of us who work at universities are nervous about the language of & # 39; safe spaces & # 39 ;, knowing that in the big bad world there is no such thing as & # 39; safe spaces & # 39; and that we do not give our students favors to prepare them for an environment that does not exist.
How does the government propose that the UK's online space becomes the safest in the world? By entering rules against & # 39; unacceptable & # 39; content.
Just like & # 39; safe spaces & # 39; the word & # 39; unacceptable & # 39; alarm bells must sound. Unacceptable for whom?
In the future, internet users will not be allowed to & # 39; undermine & # 39 ;. Offenders will be punished with high fines and by naming and disgracing the senior management of offending companies.
Maybe this all sounds a little … Chinese? Or russian? Saudi Arabia has the same prejudice against people who & # 39; unacceptable & # 39; express opinions. Within a few pages of the summary, an average reader can start by asking a few basic questions that every potential reporter could ask in his first week at work in a news editorial: what, who, where, when and why? What is regulated? The broad answer is bad things.
But & # 39; bad stuff & # 39; includes a huge amount of material from things that are already illegal (terrorism, hateful language, child pornography, etc.) To more vague concepts. These include, for example, & # 39; echo rooms & # 39; and & # 39; filter bubbles & # 39 ;, meaning that individual internet users have only a limited number of views – and damage online & # 39; which undermines our shared rights, responsibilities and opportunities to promote integration. & # 39; This is a very wide range of potentially controversial content and gives rise to the question Who. Who decides whether material is likely to be considered harmful and who can arrange the so-called safest place in the world?
The answer seems to be a mix of the companies themselves, who have a new & # 39; statutory duty of care & # 39; supported by an independent supervisor. In some cases, the Minister of the Interior must sign a number of codes of conduct and give a politician the right to determine what is and is not acceptable.
Mail on Sunday readers need not remember that Jeremy Corbyn might be the next resident on No10 Downing Street. And that also applies to Boris Johnson, whose own relationship with the truth has sometimes been shaky. Right or left, politicians should not be the judges of what a free society allows people to say, write or think.
True? Well, the regulator will be based on these coasts. But it has not escaped the attention of the White Paper authors that many of the largest and most successful social media companies have their headquarters on the other side of the planet.
There are vague talks about powers to enable the supervisor to disrupt the business activities of a non-compliant company, measures to hold individual members of senior management liable and measures to block non-compliant services & # 39 ;
This is Whitehall as King Canute, the Faceless against Facebook. There are of course countries that have successfully banned Google or disabled Twitter. They can even identify themselves as & # 39; secure & # 39; consider places online. Whether the average Briton would like to live in such places must be open to doubt.
When? Well, the White Paper proposes that social media companies move very quickly – within 24 hours – to remove offensive material. Something like this has recently been tried out in Germany with mixed results.
The threat of huge fines has led to a culture of & # 39; senior management & # 39; plays safely and that some frankly bizarre examples of speech are censored.
There are now countless examples of people being banned from giving satire, parody or offense. In March last year, a user was banned after a joke: & Muslims take a second wife. To finance their lives, Germans take a second job. & # 39;
In the same month, a woman received a one-month ban on Facebook for posting two photos: one showed the Iranian national volleyball team from the 70s, dressed in T-shirts and shorts; the current Iranian team was shown with hijabs and clothing that covered arms and legs.
Both messages can cause a violation, but close a & # 39; secure & # 39; space any humor online?
In any case, there are now several German sites that are only too happy to post material that alerts Facebook or Twitter.
Then why? The instinct for such a crackdown on the internet is understandable. There is material in cyberspace – very much – that has no place in a decent society. It is quite right to look for ways to protect children and the vulnerable from things that could be harmful to them. But unless it can answer the basic questions – and not forget how? – then there is a danger that Britain will extinguish a precious flame.
There are many reasons not to like the giants of the West Coast. I wish they were more transparent; less driven by profit, more driven by public services.
For example, the Google algorithm is one of the most powerful economic tools in the world, but how it works is a complete mystery for all of its billions of users.
I don't like them behaving like monopolies. I wish they would pay a decent part of the tax for the huge income they earn. Some of them could no doubt afford to comply with the kind of stringent regulatory regime proposed in this report. But what about the smaller community websites? Or newspapers, struggling to cope with the dramatic loss of revenue, because advertising is being ruthlessly sucked away by new players and new technologies?
What about the millions who have found a voice and freedom to communicate in this messy, brave and sometimes ugly new world in the last twelve years?
What kind of example would we set for countries where dissidents rely on the ability to & # 39; unacceptable & # 39; to post thoughts?
It is easy to demand immediate answers to difficult problems. We will not solve the real challenges of the internet by creating half-baked supervisors on the back of a white paper asking many good questions, but with the same number of wrong answers.
Five hundred years ago, Gutenberg & # 39; s invention led to convulsive revolutions in religion, science, business, education and more. A writer claimed that the German printer & # 39; forged the key that would open the doors of knowledge to all humanity & # 39 ;.
We are at a similar time in history. Let's not waste it.
Alan Rusbridger was editor-in-chief of The Guardian. He is now director of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, and is chairman of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.