The World Turned Upside Down

Earlier this summer, during a Westminster debate on Internet content, a consequence of rising concern over the availability of violent pornography and the murder of Jane Longhurst, Conservative MP, Tim Loughton, gave direct mention to a US-based website, hiding behind First Amendment rights to freedom of speech. This offers nothing less than a global digital catalogue of atrocity with no image too tasteless or extreme for its webmasters, who have twisted the democratic principles of free speech to a point that would be quite unrecognisable by the founding fathers of the American constitution.

Since that debate, the manner in which the Internet has been leveraged to display politically motivated content has also changed in a graphic and unpleasant manner which hasn’t been witnessed since the end of public executions as a form of mass entertainment. Last week and suspecting the worst, I revisited the web site in question and wasn’t surprised to see that the recent wave of so-called executions from Iraq and Saudi Arabia were available on demand to anyone with a broadband connection and a strong stomach for reality TV at its worst.

Executions or murders are now big business on the Internet and are proven tools for driving traffic and advertising figures, As a result I was even more disturbed to read, under the captioned link, “All the Iraq beheadings can be seen here”, a new message:

“We are looking for people who are able to provide us uncensored and exclusive content from the Middle East (war in Iraq/Afghanistan and other uncensored/newsworthy scenes). We are interested in obtaining the images/videos PLUS possible copyrights to them. We're willing to pay for the copyrights. Think you can help us? Email us here and possibly attach a sample. Thanks!”

Not a great deal of skill in reading between the lines is required to interpret this message. What is, I assume to be, an American business, hiding behind the First Amendment and a Florida civil liberties lawyer, is making a rather unsubtle approach to the very same people who are prepared to murder their countrymen and are implicitly suggesting that any similar video footage is offered to them first and for cash.

This is, to me, an example of the world turned upside down, a legitimate business, protected by law and peddling in images of murder, openly making an approach to the architects of atrocity at source, in the interests of free speech.

The implications raise a raft of different issues which embrace not only the concept of treason in the 21st century but obscenity legislation and the sinister connections, fuelled by mutual interests, between the Internet, terrorism and organised crime.

For employers, there’s a potential liability issue to consider as well, which is why I have deliberately not named the website in this column. This is the vicarious liability problem that an employer faces if an employee stumbles across such content in the workplace, is shocked by what he or she sees and then chooses to sue the employer for a “Failure to provide a safe working environment.”

Larger organisations may choose to use filters to limit their risks but 95% of companies in the UK count as small businesses and may not be taking steps to block content that may leave them exposed to risks from the darker, twisted side of the Internet.

Perhaps then, this is the future facing all of us, one without any real checks and balances on information and content. An on-demand, everything or nothing world where one man’s personal terrorist nightmare is another’s thirty second Windows video clip.


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