Shatner v Reddit: racists group there to "incite and spread their hatred"

Captain Kirk takes on the hive-mind.

William Shatner has had it up to here with reddit and he's letting them know about it.

The former Captain Kirk, who has been an active user of the site for a couple of weeks now, made a suggestion on the ideasfortheadmins subreddit to allow for private messages to be turned off. (He is understandably annoyed that his mailbox filling up with fanmail obscures more important functions of the site.) That suggestion, which was relatively well received, bubbled up into Shatner expressing his dismay at the less-salubrious aspects of the site, writing that:

Reddit has been the first 'mainstream' site that I have been to that actually appears to allow racists and other hate mongers to group, congregate, incite and spread their hatred. There's entire subreddits that allow it.

When reddit's free-speech brigade — the same wing of the site which is so dedicated to "free-speech" that the Gawker network remains banned from posting links to a lot of subreddits over Adrian Chen's unmasking of shock-poster Violentacrez — took Shatner to task over this, arguing that banning for racism would be against the site's rules, he pointed out the site has other rules too, which are never enforced:

  • Remember the human. When you communicate online, all you see is a computer screen. When talking to someone you might want to ask yourself "Would I say it to the person's face?" or "Would I get jumped if I said this to a buddy?"
  • Adhere to the same standards of behavior online that you follow in real life.

The general reddit view of the right to anonymous free speech trumping all other rights has got the site in trouble before. Subreddits focused around creepshots (sexualised pictures of women taken without their consent), jailbait (sexualised pictures of under-18 year olds) and beating women have all hit the news in the last few months. Bizarrely, this has happened at the same time as the site has become a standard fixture on the PR trail for celebrities in all walks of life. The "Ask Me Anything" format reached its apotheosis when Barack Obama turned up shortly before the election, and a growing number of visitors stick around afterwards.

The problem is that reddit runs itself like a social network while presenting itself like a monolithic site. Few blame Twitter or Facebook for the content they host, because the sites are so clearly run by the users. The question for reddit is whether, as its mainstream acceptance butts heads with its putrid underside, that decentralised nature will become common knowledge. If it doesn't — if the site and its admins continue to appear responsible for everything they allow — there could be trouble ahead.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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“A disaster waiting to happen”: Can you trust the government to digitise your personal data?

Privacy and security experts warn against the lesser-scrutinised Part 5 of the Digital Economy Bill, claiming bulk data sharing could be vulnerable to hacks.

Last week, the government’s Digital Economy Bill hit the news because of a proposed ban on pornographic websites that didn’t comply with its planned age verification rules. The news was just the right amount of shocking and yes, sexy, to grab the nation’s attention, but in the meantime other parts of the Bill remained unscrutinised. A distinctly un-sexy aspect of the Bill – Part 5, “Digital Government” – aims to completely revolutionise the way your personal data is shared.

In essence, Part 5 allows the government to digitise your data and bulk-share it without informing you or asking for your permission. This data includes your birth, death, and marriage certificates, as well as information on your taxes, court appearances, benefits, student loans, and even parking tickets. If the Bill passes, your information will be shared with local councils, charities, and even businesses – initially, gas and electricity companies.

Today, the Bill will undergo its third reading in the House of Commons. Last Friday, 26 privacy experts wrote to the Daily Telegraph to call for Part 5 to be removed from the Bill due to the lack of technical and legal safeguards in place.

“It's horrid and it's complex and it's going to impact all of us,” says Renate Samson, the chief executive of Big Brother Watch, an organisation that scrutinises the government to protect individual privacy. Big Brother Watch was invited by the government to work on the Bill as part of the government’s Open Policy Making, but Samson feels it was ignored when discussing the need for strong safeguards in the Bill. “Holding civil registration documents in bulk and sharing them in bulk is without a doubt a data disaster waiting to happen.”

Samson and her team worry that the Bill does not do enough to protect our personal data. “They tell a little story in one of their documents about mothers being able to click and access their baby’s birth certificate instead of having to go and get a copy, which sounds brilliant except they haven’t defined how they’ll know the mother is who she says she is, and how she will know who she can trust on the other end,” she says. “In a perfect, idyllic utopia, it works, but it doesn’t take hacking into consideration.”

According to the National Audit Office, in 2014-15, there were 9,000 data breaches across government departments. The subsequent inquiries revealed that many officials did not know how to report a breach and there was not enough guidance for the authorities involved. “The government is already failing to look after our data,” says Samson. “Fundamentally [Part 5] will lead to data breaches. People’s data will get lost and we won't ever know how or why.”

Though the government denies it, there are additional fears that this digitisation of data is the beginning of an ID database, a policy that was scrapped in 2011. At the time, then-Home Office minister Damian Green said that ending the proposed National Identity Register demonstrated “the government’s commitment to scale back the power of the state and restore civil liberties”.

Whether or not a register is created, however, Samson and other privacy experts, as well as the British Medical Association, take issue with the fundamental justifications for bulk data sharing. “The reason that they've given for wanting to do all this is ‘wellbeing’, which is crap, frankly,” she says. “In the summer, the Scottish Parliament dropped the Named Person Scheme because the supreme court found that ‘wellbeing’ is simply not a strong enough reason to share people’s personal information. Of course they’re trying to do something great but they’re going about it in a really cack-handed fashion.”

One example of this is that the government intends to share your personal information with the Troubled Families programme to identify people who may be at risk. Although this is ostensibly positive, this information will also be used to determine anti-social behaviour. “On the one hand, they’re saying that they’ll make sure that families who need help will get it, but on the other, if it transpires that you’re noisy or you’re difficult on your estate, they will now share that data so you can have an Asbo.”

Fundamentally, then, although the aims of the Bill seem admirable, there are simply not enough safeguards and rules in place currently for it to safely become law. While this partially might be a simple error on the government’s part, Samson argues that the language of the Bill is “as open and broad and woolly as you can possibly imagine”, causing concern about how it might actually be used in practice. In theory, hundreds or thousands of businesses and authorities could have access to your data without your consent.

“No one is opposing the idea of data sharing,” says Samson, “But a) tell us why, b) keep us informed if you’re using our data, and c) let us control our data. That’s the only way this is all going to move forward.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.