“Some people believe football is a matter of life and death… I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.” – Bill Shankly
“The British are the only nation of people to use the word glass as a verb.” – Jim Jefferies
A fun little story is playing out in my homeland, one that once again paints the US and UK as two countries divided by an uncommon approach to freedom of speech.
The facts are these: Since last weekend, former professional football player (that’s our football, not yours) and current radio host, Stan Collymore, has suffered a deluge of threats and racial abuse over Twitter. (The abuse has something to do with football which is, let’s be clear, the most important thing in the world.) Despite widespread public and media outcry, including from the like of Piers Morgan, and an ongoing police investigation, Twitter has refused to ban many of the trolls involved.
Collmore was quoted in the UK’s Press Gazette:
In the last 24 hours I’ve been threatened with murder several times, demeaned on my race, and many of these accounts are still active. Why?
I accuse Twitter directly of not doing enough to combat racist/homophobic/sexist hate messages, all of which are illegal in the UK.
Several police forces have been fantastic. Twitter haven’t. Dismayed.
In a statement to the BBC, Twitter responded:
Twitter is an open communications platform. Our priority is that users are able to express themselves, within acceptable limits and, of course, within the law.
We cannot stop people from saying offensive, hurtful things on the internet or on Twitter. But we take action when content is reported to us that breaks our rules or is illegal.
They then suggested that Collymore can always block trolls if he is offended by their comments.
As a Brit living in the US, the story is fascinating for two reasons. Firstly, I’m reminded that, in Britain, being racially abusive to strangers on Twitter isn’t just the mark of a dick-wad, but an actual crime. People go to jail for it. The UK has no First Amendment and no written, national constitution. The British notion of acceptable freedom of expression is far, far narrower than here in the US.
The longer I’ve lived in the US, the more I’ve come to love the American approach to free speech. Yes, it allows trolls to be more aggressive, more abusive and — in many cases — more defamatory than back home. But it also allows for full and frank debate on unpopular subjects, without the risk of law enforcement putting their boots through your front door.
Secondly, the story highlights the issues faced by companies like Twitter when operating even in “friendly” overseas markets. The UK isn’t China or Saudi Arabia, but nor is it Connecticut or South Dakota. In UK law, Twitter has a legal obligation to cooperate with police investigations into unlawful speech — and to many people in the UK, it has a moral obligation to ban trolls and racists from its service.
Today, Collymore’s employer, Talksport — the UK’s only national sports radio broadcaster — banned all mentions of Twitter from its airwaves, and from the pages of its Sport magazine, until the company acts against trolls. In the US, such a move might have caused an outcry over media censorship but in Britain the move has been largely met with murmurs of “quite right too.”
Twitter has always been one of the better social media platforms when it comes to respecting its users’ free expression and pushing back against what it considers to be overreach by law enforcement, particularly in foreign territories. It’ll be interesting to see whether it’s willing to alienate millions of British Twitter users by holding firm on that principle.
For what it’s worth, speaking from my new home on this side of the pond, I hope they do.
Photo by Jason Tester (Creative Commons)