Those complaining about the impact of social media on the criminal justice system, including the country’s chief legal officers, are missing the point, and doomed to fail in their efforts to do anything about it.

This is a long piece explaining why.

Let’s go back a little bit. Back to 1543, in fact. That year, English monarch Henry VIII was deeply worried. The tenets of Martin Luther, fueled by English translations of the Bible, not to mention his own break with Rome and dissolution of the monasteries, were spreading throughout England. “Many arrogant and ignorant persons had taken upon them not only to preach, teach, and set forth the same by words, sermons, and disputations,” Henry complained, “but also by printed books, ballads, plays, rhymes, songs and other fancies, subtly to instruct the people, and especially the youth of the kingdom, otherwise than the Scripture ought to be taught.”

Henry had a special responsibility. If he allowed heretical doctrines to flourish within his kingdom, he was culpable in the eternal damnation of the souls of those led astray.

So, to protect Christianity, he banned reading, and discussing, the Bible.

Individual English translations had been banned before, but now reading any Bible was outright banned by the Act for the Advancement of True Religion. The only exception outside the Church were “noblemen and gentlemen” and “noble and gentle women”. For everyone else, the penalty was one month in prison for reading the Bible, aloud or silent, in public or private. Similarly, anyone who publicly discussed the Bible could be locked up for a month.

Move forward about 470 years. Last Friday, our own attorneys-general gathered to discuss, inter alia, “Cyberbullying and Trolling” and announced that there would be discussions “between governments, law enforcement agencies and social media operators” and that federal Attorney-General Nicola Roxon would develop “options to improve cooperation between law enforcement agencies and online social media providers.”

It comes in the context not merely of the recent confected outrage about trolling but alarm about the impact of social media in relation to the Jill Meagher case. Yesterday, Victorian Attorney-General Robert Clark threatened Facebook with legal action on that matter.

Clark, his ministerial colleagues, police and commentators complaining about the impact of social media are no different, not in any significant way, from Henry VIII. They want to stop the unstoppable in the name of protecting people.

But wait, I can hear every lawyer reading this say: the right to a fair trial is fundamentally different to the religious bigotry of an early modern monarch.

Really? Well, first things first: there’s an assumption that public commentary about an individual accused of a crime prejudices their right to a fair trial. But that is merely an assertion by the legal industry. It’s an immensely powerful one, because it’s on the basis of this hypertrophied sense of prejudice that the industry, from judges through to prosecutors and defence lawyers, have been able to build an entire edifice of information control centuries old, in which information is rigorously guarded from the community and reserved for those trusted to be able to use it correctly.

As part of that, jurors in criminal trials are reduced to the level of children, carefully shielded from information they are not trusted to use properly. Indeed, they can be punished by courts if they actually try to find out information about a trial on their own initiative, unguided by judges and lawyers.

To state all this is not to pass judgment on it. The legal system is a mechanism of social control, but a necessary one. And there may well be validity to the claims of the legal industry about the need to control information, that unrestrained public discussion of a criminal case prejudices the right of a defendant to a fair trial — although the claim is more often asserted than backed up with evidence.

Undoubtedly most lawyers believe strongly in the importance of protecting the right to a fair trial. So Henry VIII believed he had a special responsibility to protect his subject from eternal hellfire.

You see, censors always have our best interests at heart — but interests as determined by them, based on existing mechanisms of social control like religion and law.

But the internet flattens information hierarchies, and the legal system is one giant information hierarchy. It faces the same fate as other industries based on such hierarchies — the content industry, or bricks-and-mortar retail, or mainstream media. The internet is going to steamroll it. It’s already done it repeatedly to the UK legal institution of the superinjunction.

Again, to state this isn’t to pass judgment on it. It doesn’t matter what you, or I, or anyone thinks about this. That you approve of one hierarchy, like one we’re told protects the rights of an accused criminal, and not another, like say the copyright cartel, is of no moment. The internet will destroy the information hierarchy that underpins your industry. It will hurt people, throw people out of jobs, make life miserable for some. Our approval or lack thereof is irrelevant.

And efforts to stop it will look like those of Henry VIII to ban reading and discussing the Bible.

The point missed by the attorneys-general and those complaining about the right to a fair trial is the same one missed over and over again by those who take up arms against social media, and by many who defend it, and that is to see the technology, the software, as the key issue, rather than what people are doing with it. People are merely using such platforms to do what they did before the internet, only on a wider scale: to form communities, to form relationships, to debate, fight, trade, share news, entertain one another.

That’s what humans do.People always “risked the right to a fair trial” by talking amongst themselves about crime. Lynch mobs were very much a pre-internet phenomenon. The conviction of Lindy Chamberlain took place in an Australian entirely untainted by the evil presence of social media. They — we — talked in pubs, across backyard fences, in workplaces about the case. The only difference now is that we talk online, to wider communities.

But that’s the difference, some will assert. It’s all now in public, not private, available on a computer or phone screen for millions to see. But there is no difference of significance: such conversations were always conducted in our communities; it’s merely that communities now exist free of geography and it’s easier for people to join them from anywhere.

And because they’re conducted online as well as off, a category error is made, because many people only understand social media as a form of traditional media. In fact social media is a mechanism of interconnectedness that, purely incidentally — almost as collateral damage, if you like — can provide the same function as traditional media, but that’s not its true purpose or significance.

Thus is created the misperception that risks to a fair trial taking place on social media can be regulated like risks to a fair trial in traditional media — which, of course, has ruined many a trial in a way that you strangely don’t hear discussed in the current debate about Facebook. Would-be regulators and commentators go looking for the equivalent entities via which traditional media was regulated — the social media equivalent of publishers. Thus the focus on Facebook, for instance, in the Jill Meagher matter.

But this repeats the error of confusing the platform for what people do with it. Facebook is not the publisher of anything except dodgy prospectuses. People are merely using Facebook to do what they always did in their communities.

In our case, overlaying this error is a kind of jurisdictional nationalism, in which parochial Australians get upset because the perceived “publishers” exist outside Australian legal jurisdiction.

This of course leads to the problem of the efficacy of regulation. After all this time, would-be regulators have cottoned onto the fact that regulating the internet is hard. Instead, they increasingly talk of voluntary codes of behaviour and self-regulation to tempt companies that have no more than a passing interest, if that, in what Australian courts or lawmakers think about them, to comply.

Even this approach is doomed to fail. How many social media sites are there? What even is a social media site? Sure there’s Twitter and Facebook, but there’s also non-Anglophone equivalents of Western platforms such as Sina Weibo, Skyrock or Cyworld as well; there are once-popular legacy sites that have been reborn with other functions (Friendster); there are boutique platforms like Blackberry Messenger, there are gaming platforms accessible via XBox 360 and PS3 that permit in-game chat and live talk on a global basis; there are innumerable chat applications and chat functions of communications platforms such as Skype; blogging applications like WordPress and microblogging applications like Tumblr that allow text-based communication, collaborative tools like Pastebin and Google Docs, instant messaging clients with encryption capabilities like Adium, and comparatively ancient communications platforms based on IRC.

And chances are, one or two of the top five social media apps of 2017 don’t even currently exist. Good luck regulating social media when you can’t even define it or name the companies you deem “publishers” of it.

The alternative regulatory approach, one favoured by the content industry, is to directly pursue individuals who threaten traditional information hierarchies. But this is problematic on a mass scale, and costly even on an exemplary punishment basis — one of the reasons why would-be regulators default to demanding pseudo-publishers (whether it’s Facebook, or ISPs) engage in enforcement for them, rather than actual authorities.

The result, as we’ve seen repeatedly, is that enforcement aimed at preventing the disruption of information hierarchies fails, and the industries suffering disruption must eventually accept that they have to switch to an alternative business model, or more commonly watch as new digital native entrants do it for them and steal their revenues. And that alternative business model always involves handing power to consumers, or perhaps more correctly recognizing that power has shifted to them.

The legal industry remains at the earlier stage of this learning curve. It still believes it can, and should, use regulation to prevent the disruption of its control of information. It’s understandable — the legal industry has successfully operated on this basis for centuries. More than any other industry, certainly more so than the content industry, or the media, this is an industry that has successfully used regulation as a tool to maintain its own control, often to the benefit of society. But it, too, will fail.

The quicker the legal industry accepts the impacts of social media are irremediable and works out how to cope, the better. But no industry confronted with the flattening impact of the internet has yet been able to accept the logic that it must surrender part of its power. And the legal industry is less likely to do that than any industries that have previously faced the challenge.

*Tomorrow: why the mainstream media can’t handle “cyberbullying” either

Peter Fray

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