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Trial by Twitter

Online this month, we have been playing by our own rules. On the evening of Monday 12 October, "#Trafigura" began trending on Twitter. The rules (in this case, England's increasingly worrying libel laws) were preventing the Guardian reporting parliamentary proceedings. The paper thought this broke another set of rules, namely "privileges guaranteeing free speech established under the 1688 Bill of Rights". Picking up where lawyers at Carter-Ruck had forced the paper to leave off, twitterers began to spread the censored news themselves.

By noon the next day, information that the oil traders Trafigura had sought to suppress had conformed to another rule - the "Streisand effect" (after an attempt by the singer to remove an aerial photograph of her home from the public domain which backfired spectacularly). Thousands of users who would usually have ignored an exposé on the subject of toxic dumping in Côte d'Ivoire looked up a damning report hosted on the whistleblowing website Wikileaks. "Thank you Twitter for alerting me," wrote one user. "Would have completely missed this otherwise".

If UK media pundits saw any similarity between this victory for free speech and last year's outing of Baby P's full name on social networking sites,
they didn't mention it. And if Twitter's owners felt any nerves about dipping their toe in the cesspool that is English libel law, they didn't show it. Where the rules don't work, it seems fine to rely on instinct and the largesse of US corporations to help break them.

Later in the week, leading UK twitterers channelled an army of complainants to online advertisers whose products appeared next to an ill-judged and homophobic Daily Mail piece by Jan Moir on the death of Stephen Gately. Rather than go to the editor with their complaints, they played by another set of rules: they went for the paper's bottom line. Soon, M&S, Nestlé, Kodak and National Express had pulled their advertising and Twitter claimed another victory.

So far, so good. But whether these are the foundations upon which we wish to build a new set of rules for a new age, I'm not so sure. I can't help wondering how far we will travel hand in hand with corporate conscience down the road of digital free speech before one of us chooses to pull away.

Becky Hogge is a writer and technologist. She was formerly the technology director of award-winning current affairs website, and Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, a grassroots digital civil liberties organisation.

This article first appeared in the 26 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, New York / London

Photo: Getty Images
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No, IDS, welfare isn't a path to wealth. Quite the opposite, in fact

Far from being a lifestyle choice, welfare is all too often a struggle for survival.

Iain Duncan Smith really is the gift that keeps on giving. You get one bile-filled giftbag of small-minded, hypocritical nastiness and, just when you think it has no more pain to inflict, off comes another ghastly layer of wrapping paper and out oozes some more. He is a game of Pass the Parcel for people who hate humanity.
For reasons beyond current understanding, the Conservative party not only let him have his own department but set him loose on a stage at their conference, despite the fact that there was both a microphone and an audience and that people might hear and report on what he was going to say. It’s almost like they don’t care that the man in charge of the benefits system displays a fundamental - and, dare I say, deliberate - misunderstanding of what that system is for.
IDS took to the stage to tell the disabled people of Britain - or as he likes to think of us, the not “normal” people of Britain -  “We won’t lift you out of poverty by simply transferring taxpayers’ money to you. With our help, you’ll work your way out of poverty.” It really is fascinating that he was allowed to make such an important speech on Opposite Day.
Iain Duncan Smith is a man possessed by the concept of work. That’s why he put in so many hours and Universal Credit was such a roaring success. Work, when available and suitable and accessible, is a wonderful thing, but for those unable to access it, the welfare system is a crucial safety net that keeps them from becoming totally impoverished.
Benefits absolutely should be the route out of poverty. They are the essential buffer between people and penury. Iain Duncan Smith speaks as though there is a weekly rollover on them, building and building until claimants can skip into the kind of mansion he lives in. They are not that. They are a small stipend to keep body and soul together.
Benefits shouldn’t be a route to wealth and DWP cuts have ensured that, but the notion that we should leave people in poverty astounds me. The people who rely on benefits don’t see it as a quick buck, an easy income. We cannot be the kind of society who is content to leave people destitute because they are unable to work, through long-term illness or short-term job-seeking. Without benefits, people are literally starving. People don’t go to food banks because Waitrose are out of asparagus. They go because the government has snipped away at their benefits until they have become too poor to feed themselves.
The utter hypocrisy of telling disabled people to work themselves out of poverty while cutting Access to Work is so audacious as to be almost impressive. IDS suggests that suitable jobs for disabled workers are constantly popping out of the ground like daisies, despite the fact that his own government closed 36 Remploy factories. If he wants people to work their way out of poverty, he has make it very easy to find that work.
His speech was riddled with odious little snippets digging at those who rely on his department. No one is “simply transferring taxpayers’ money” to claimants, as though every Friday he sits down with his card reader to do some online banking, sneaking into people’s accounts and spiriting their cash away to the scrounging masses. Anyone who has come within ten feet of claiming benefits knows it is far from a simple process.
He is incredulous that if a doctor says you are too sick to work, you get signed off work, as though doctors are untrained apes that somehow gained access to a pen. This is only the latest absurd episode in DWP’s ongoing deep mistrust of the medical profession, whose knowledge of their own patients is often ignored in favour of a brief assessment by an outside agency. IDS implies it is yes-no question that GPs ask; you’re either well enough to work or signed off indefinitely to leech from the state. This is simply not true. GPs can recommend their patients for differing approaches for remaining in work, be it a phased return or adapted circumstances and they do tend to have the advantage over the DWP’s agency of having actually met their patient before.
I have read enough stories of the callous ineptitude of sanctions and cuts starving the people we are meant to be protecting. A robust welfare system is the sign of a society that cares for those in need. We need to provide accessible, suitable jobs for those who can work and accessible, suitable benefits for those who can’t. That truly would be a gift that keeps giving.