One year ago a self obsessed loser from the west side of Oslo went on a killing rampage, fuelled by online hatred and right-wing conspiracy theories, to cut the heroic figure he imagined he should be.
Norway has thought of little else since. As his guilt was not in question, the court case, held April 16 to June 22, was part historical documentation, part therapy session for a traumatized nation, part memorial for the victims and part seminar on psychiatric diagnosis and the distinction between insane obsession and deranged judgement.
The rights the court granted the mass murderer surprised many: he was unchained, allowed to speak, unhindered when he contrived a made-up right-wing salute, and the professional actors in the courtroom shook his hand. Foreign observers saw it as bewildering naivety or perhaps lack of passion. In fact for many Norwegians it was our act of defiance; changing these norms would mean shifting the society ever so slightly in a direction Breivik would have approved of.
In recent weeks a shameful situation has dominated Norwegian headlines.
The relatively small number of Romanian Roma in Oslo, legally in the country as EU citizens, have experienced increased hostility, including threats and pure hate speech. Police have been tearing down their camps one minute, protecting them against aggressive neighbours the next.
The worst things that are being said aren’t actually being said of course, but written on the internet, Breivik’s feeding trough for hate. Hopefully we’ve come far enough not to blame the technology in this case, which would be like blaming the Holocaust on bierstubes.
Internet freedom is one of the crucial issues of our time, which is why I am pleased that openDemocracy is amongst the signers of the Declaration of Internet Freedom. Some criticize the text for its vagueness, but it’s intended as a banner to gather around when the freedom of the Internet is under attack, rather than a detailed manifesto.
The internet started out with protocols but without law. But power abhors a vacuum, and so it’s being subjected to rules struggling to keep up with technology and a traditional battle has opened between the interest of big business and police on one hand, and civil liberties, creativity and users (as well as other big businesses in some cases) on the other.
It’s crucial we pay attention to what these laws say. Too many forces are all too willing to censor opinions, keep users under surveillance or create a two-tier net. The internet got a lot of things right because it blindsided authorities, transcends nations and keeps changing faster than any law-making process.
The laws now being proposed are written with generous input from lobbyists, who seek to have them passed as discretely as possible. This has been surprisingly unsuccessful this year, and all credit for this goes to new brand of online political activists, sharing values such as the right to freedom of speech, creative freedom, democracy, privacy for individuals and transparency for the powerful players. They’re often not identified on the left/right axis, and when they are, just as likely to be libertarians as socialists. From the streets of Poland to reddit.com, from Pirate parties to Silicon valley, they’ve mobilized, spoken up and successfully thrown wrenches in the machinery, stopping laws such as SOPA/PIPA (US) and ACTA (killed in the European parliament) in their tracks.
Much of their proposed constraints will be back under a new guise, (hence the proposal for an internet bat signal, to mobilize the minute this happens). Still these victories are, for a variety of reasons, so far more tangible than anything actually achieved by movements such as Occupy.
The rules of the future Internet are being written today. We should pay attention.