There is a very quiet page on Facebook called ‘Free Stephen Birrell’. There may be a few legal or human rights reasons that Birrell, sentenced for eight months this week for posting hate messages about Celtic boss Neil Lennon on Facebook, should be freed, but of course he won’t, and maybe that’s why at present, only one person ‘Likes’ this page.
There are few in the country who agree with Stephen Birrell’s opinions, and that includes myself. But when I heard the case reported on Radio Scotland, which broadcast some choice quotes from Birrell, I wondered: what is the exact difference between Radio Scotland reading these hate messages out as part of a news item, and having them posted on a Facebook page that few of us would ever look at?
Although context is key, it is possible that Birrell had one last smile as he was shipped (back) to prison; his hate messages have now been received world-wide broadcast, and hearing them in BBC RP is particularly surreal.
My own shock at this story is that I have seen and read many worse things on the internet. I bet you have too. Millions of computer users will be able to tell Birrell that his big mistake was using Facebook to begin with, because it was Facebook that ‘owned’ his opinions and thus allowed him to be daubed in.
We all know by now that the internet is a mighty sewer filled with hate, porn and lies, but because this is Facebook, and because Birrell is an easy target (working class / ex-con) and because Scotland is a general ferment about sectarianism anyway, his case was a knee-jerk reaction waiting to happen.
Based on this case however, if I were to be judge, jury and sentencer, I could spend the rest of this year and probably the rest of my life searching Facebook and other sites, and lock up an almost unlimited amount of people who are mouthing off, or posting comments that may be better shared down the pub. Even without looking too hard, you will find on Facebook Islamic Hate groups, Police Hate groups, groups that hate fat people, Americans, Protestants — and oh God the list goes on and on. And yes, they should probably all just get off Facebook and leave it for those who want to share photos of their cat/lunch/kids — because I think that is what the underlying message is here: Facebook as state and corporate power versus Open Source as people power and free speech.
The issue with Facebook is that the software and the information is not owned by the users and so freedom of speech is simply not possible. Social networks such as Crabgrass (which is good for social activism as there is no corporate body to hand your plans over to the state — just other users) are decentralised and are run with no private authority, using free network services, which run open source (free) software.
Whatever you may wish to argue, Facebook is not free; there is a heavy price to pay in our being bombarded with adverts and with our details becoming the private possession of somebody else. And Big Brother has never been so real as He is in this case.
I wouldn’t recommend Crabgrass to guys like Birrell; they would be run off the server by other users; but having said that there are numerous places on the net where you can safely post what you like, and where views go unmoderated. I am wondering now; what if Birrell had posted his views on a message board like 4chan, and then linked those to Facebook? And if you don’t know what 4chan is, make sure you have a stiff drink or sedative to hand before you look at it.
I don’t know if linking to views is as bad as expressing them yourself, or anonymously. But what I do know is that what is posted on Facebook stays on Facebook; by which I mean you cannot delete it. You can’t even delete your account and all the information it has gathered about you; because it is not yours any more.
This is why religious hate groups, very like paedophiles, have their own federated computer networks and social media sites, and there of course, they can post as they please to their constituent audience. As a Facebook user (or ‘employee’ as I like to call them) Stephen Birrell’s abuse became theirs and the silly boy signed his own execution warrant by saying what he did.
Yeah, Birrell got what he deserved, I won’t argue with the chattering classes on that one, simply because it’s not the issue. But just watch what you say if you’re feeling angry about anything from climate change to corporate greed. If somebody considers it to be nae nice — well don’t say you were not warned.
If you would like to know more about alternative and federated social web services, here are a few to have a look at:
Crabgrass – http://crabgrass.riseuplabs.org/
StatusNet – http://status.net/
MediaGoblin – http://mediagoblin.org/
GNU social – http://foocorp.org/projects/social/
Apache Wave – http://incubator.apache.org/wave/
Diaspora – https://joindiaspora.com/
More – http://libreprojects.net/