All posts by Binoy Kampmark

Julian Assange and the Scales of Justice: Exceptions, Extraditions and Politics

The Home Secretary of the United Kingdom did his thing, which was little in the way of disagreement.  The superpower has issued a request; the retainer would comply.  This week, the US Department Justice Department formally sought the extradition of Julian Assange.  The process was certified by Sajid Javid, a man rather distracted of late.  He is, after all, seeking to win the hearts of the Conservatives and replace Theresa May as Prime Minster.  Boris Johnson, not Wikileaks and press freedom, is on his mind.

The WikiLeaks front man had failed to satisfy Javid that there were exceptions warranting the refusal to sign off on the request.  A spokesman explained the matter in dull terms.  “The Home Secretary must certify a valid request for extradition… unless certain narrow exceptions to section 70 of the Extradition Act 2003 apply.”  Robotic compliance was almost expected.

The exceptions outlined in the section note that the Secretary may refuse to issue a certificate in circumstances where it may be deferred; where the person being extradited is recorded as a refugee within the meaning of the Refugee Convention; or where, having been granted leave to enter or remain in the UK, Articles 2 or 3 of the Human Rights Convention would be breached if removal of the person to the extraditing territory would take place.

The European Convention on Human Rights expressly prohibits torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, with Article 3 also prohibiting the extradition of a person to a foreign state if they are likely to be subjected to torture.

Massimo Moratti, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for Europe, is certain that the Wikileaks publisher will suffer grave mistreatment if extradited to the United States.  “The British government must not accede to the US extradition request for Julian Assange as he faces a real risk of serious human right violations if sent there.”  This will further add substance to the potential breach of Article 3 of the Human Rights Convention, a point reiterated by Agnes Callamard, Special rapporteur on extra-judicial executions.  Ecuador, she argues, permitted Assange to be expelled and arrested by the UK, taking him a step closer to extradition to the US which would expose him to “serious human rights violations.”  The UK had “arbitrary [sic] detained Mr Assange possibly endangering his life for the last 7 years.”

On May 31, Nils Melzer, UN Special Rapporteur on torture, concluded after visiting Assange in detention that the publisher’s isolation and repeated belittling constituted “progressively severe forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, the cumulative effects of which can only be described as psychological torture.”

The issue of Assange’s failing health is critical.  An important feature of his legal team’s argument is the role played by the UK authorities in ensuring his decline in physical and mental terms.  The argument in rebuttal, disingenuous as it was, never deviated: you will get treatment as long as you step out of the Ecuadorean embassy.

There is also another dimension which the distracted Javid failed to articulate: the sheer political character of the offences Assange is being accused of.  Espionage is a political offence par excellence, and the UK-US extradition treaty, for all its faults, retains under Article 4 the prohibition against extraditing someone accused of political offences, including espionage, sedition, and treason.  As John T. Nelson notes in Just Security, “Each of Assange’s possible defences are strengthened by the 17 counts of espionage”.

The prosecutors heading the effort against Assange were not content with keeping matters confined to the single count of conspiracy to violate the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.  Had they done so, the narrow scope would have made the challenge from Assange’s legal team more difficult.  Hacking is an artificial fault line in the world of publishing and revealing classified material; such individuals have been quarantined and treated as standard middle-of-the-road vigilantes who fiddle computer systems.

Assange, as he has done so often, blurred the lines: the youthful hacker as political activist; the more mature warrior of information transparency.  The Justice Department’s efforts, at least initially, involved divorcing Assange the publisher from Assange the hacker.  According to Steve Vladeck, a legal boffin versed in national security law, “the more the US is able to sell the British government, sell British courts the idea that [the CFAA charge] is the heart of the matter, I think the more of a slam dunk it will be for extradition.”

Assange’s legal team were ready for the Home Secretary’s decision, but their case has been hampered.  Supporters such as the Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei have been perturbed by the way Assange has been hamstrung in case preparations.  “The big problem there is that Julian has no access to the means to prepare his case.  And his case, I think, has another two months before its full hearing.  He needs more access to the means to prepare his defence against this terrible extradition order.”

The enormity of the case against the Assange team, prosecuted by an assemblage of security machinery wonks and a sociopathic establishment, has presented WikiLeaks with its greatest challenge.  In the information war environment, it has thrived; in the legal warfare environment, the circumstances are upended. But the legal grounds are there to defeat the case; the question, more to the point, is where Britain’s scales of justice, rather unbalanced on the issue of dealing with classified information, will be tipped.

Snubs, Bumps and Donald Trump in Britain

He may not be popular in Britain, but he still has shavings of appeal.  For a country that has time for Nigel Farage, pro-Brexit enthusiast and full-time hypocrite (he is a member of the European Parliament, the very same institution he detests), President Donald Trump will garner a gaggle of fans.

One of them was not the London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, trenchant in his belief that the US president should never have been granted a state visit.  “It’s quite clear that Theresa May was premature in making this invitation, and it’s backfired on her.” But Trump’s tendency to unhinge his critics is not so much levelling as lowering: Khan’s coarse remarks a day before Trump arrived were timed to create a Twitter scene.

Trump, he wrote spitefully in The Guardian, was leading a push from the right “threatening our hard-won rights and freedoms and the values that have defined our liberal, democratic societies for more than seventy years.”  The UK had to stop “appeasing” (that Munich analogy again) dictatorial tendencies.  (Oblivious, is Khan, to the illustrious record Britain has in providing receptions and banquets for the blood thirsty and authoritarian.)

This semi-literate historical overview had the desired result.  Just prior to landing in London, Trump tweeted that Khan “who by all accounts has done a terrible job as Mayor of London, has been foolishly ‘hasty’ to the visiting President of the United States, by far the most important ally of the United Kingdom.”  For good measure, Trump insisted that the mayor was “a stone cold loser who should focus on crime in London, not me…”

The mood was set, and the presence of the president overseeing Britain’s increasingly feral political scene reminded The New York Times of boardroom takes of The Apprentice (reality television, again) though it came uncomfortably close to an evaluation of the “rear of the year” or a wet t-shirt competition of the fugglies.  This was aided by the absence of a one-to-one meeting between Trump and the soon to depart Theresa May, there being no preliminary meeting in Downing Street.

Trump felt at home, sizing up candidates to succeed May as British prime minister.  While he could muster choice words to describe Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, Michael Gove barely registered. “Would do a good job, Jeremy?  Tell me.”

A few candidates did their best to impress, a spectacle that did, at points, verge on the grotesque.

The Conservative Party is deliriously panicked: Farage’s Brexit Party is proving so threatening its pushing the old guard to acts of pure desperation.  This is riveting, if troubling stuff for political watchers such as Tim Bale of Queen Mary, University of London.  “A lot of the constraints have come off British politics.  Whether they’ve come off permanently, or whether it’s because the Conservative Party is at panic stations, is something only time can tell.”

Foreign secretary Hunt was particularly keen to show his wet shirt to the ogling Trump.  He no doubt felt he had to, given that Johnson had already been praised as a person who “would do a very good job” as British prime minister. To repay Trump for his acknowledgment, Hunt dismissed the views of the London mayor.  “I agree with [Trump] that it is totally inappropriate for the Labour party to be boycotting this incredibly important visit.  This is the president of the United States.”

The situation with Johnson cannot but give some amusement.  Trump, rather memorably, had been a subscriber to the theory that parts of London had become a dystopian nightmare replete with psychotic, murderous residents of the swarthy persuasion.  Johnson, for all his faults, was happy to give Trump a nice slice of demurral on his city when mayor.  He also opined that Trump was “clearly out of his mind” in making the now infamous suggestion on December 7, 2015 for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”   But politics is an odd stew, throwing together a strange mix of ingredients.  For his part, Johnson declined an invitation to see Trump in person, preferring the comforting distance of a 20-minute phone call.

Away from rear of the year proceedings were those who had consciously boycotted any event associated with Trump.  Prince William and Prince Harry preferred to avoid a photo opportunity with the president at Buckingham Palace.  Jeremy Corbyn of the Labour Party preferred to join protests against Trump over attending the state banquet.  The act will no doubt be seen as admirable in some quarters, but hardly qualifies as those of a potential future prime minister.  “Corbyn,” noted The Independent, “has again dodged the stately bullet and had instead taken the easy way out.”  To the echo chamber he went.

Beyond the visit, more substantive matters are going to be troubling for diplomats in the UK Foreign Office.  One of the things touted during the Tuesday press conference was the prospect of a trade agreement between a Britain unshackled from the EU, and the United States.  Trump even went so far as to press May to stay longer for the negotiations.  Not one for briefings, he ventured a suggestion: “I don’t know exactly what your timing is but, stick around, let’s do this deal.”

The issue is fascinatingly premature: Britain, having not yet left the EU, let alone on any clear basis, faces an orbit of sheer, jangling confusion for some time to come.  In terms of numbers, the issue is also stark: the UK has the EU to thank for half of its trade; the United States comes in at 14.7 percent.

The troubling feature of any free trade proposal coming out of the Trump administration will be its rapacity, or, as Trump likes to call it, “phenomenal” scope.  Nothing will be exempt.  Agriculture and health are two fields of contention.  Access for US exports will entail easing limitations on animal feed with antibiotics and genetically modified crops.  More headaches, and bumps, await the relationship between troubled Britannia and groping Uncle Sam.

Warring Against Sources: The Australian National Security State, Journalism and the Public Interest

What’s gone on this morning sends clear and dangerous signals to journalists and newsrooms across Australia.  This will chill public interest reporting.

— News Corp Australia spokesperson, The West Australian, June 4, 2019

These are dark times for journalists and publishers.  It did not seem coincidental that Annika Smethurst, a News Corp journalist and political affairs editor, would be a target of an Australian Federal Police warrant.  Chelsea Manning, courtesy of a ruling by Judge Anthony Trenga, remains in federal custody in the United States.  Julian Assange is facing decline in the maximum security abode that is Belmarsh prison in the United Kingdom.

The story supposedly linked to the AFP warrant had been published by Smethurst on April 29, 2018. More than a year had elapsed, with little in the way of public murmurings.  Australians have, for the most part, fallen under the anaesthetist’s spell regarding intrusive, unnecessary and dangerous national security laws.  Another set of them would hardly matter.

But since the story, titled “Let Us Spy on Aussies” broke last year, the security wallahs have been attempting to root out the source, mobilising the AFP in the process.  The account detailed information on discussions between the Home Affairs and Defence departments on the possibility of granting the Australian Signals Directorate powers to monitor the emails, bank records and text messages of Australian citizens.  Letters between Secretary of Home Affairs Mike Pezzullo and Defence Secretary Greg Moriarty featured.

When the archaic official secrets provisions of the Crimes Act 1914 (Cth) were repealed in June 29 2018, leaving way for new regulations dealing with national security information, those dealing with publishing such material felt slight relief.  A public interest defence, lodged in the National Security Legislation Amendment (Espionage and Foreign) Interference Act 2018, had been introduced, protecting those “engaged in the business of reporting news, presenting current affairs or expressing editorial or other content in news media”.

The content in question might cover what the Act designates to be “inherently harmful information”: security classified information; information obtained by, or made by or on behalf of, a domestic intelligence agency or a foreign intelligence agency in connection with the agency’s functions; or information on “the operations, capabilities or technologies of, or methods or sources used by, a domestic or foreign law enforcement agency.”

It always pays, when reading such sections, to consider the exceptions.  Conduct deemed a contravention of provisions regarding intelligence sources (the publication of names or identity of staff, for instance), does not satisfy the test, nor conduct deemed to assist, directly or indirectly, “a foreign intelligence agency or a foreign military organisation.”  Logical, you might say.

The ineffectual nature of those provisions is borne out by how narrow the protection is. The Law Council’s efforts to convince the federal government to extend the public interest defence to suppliers of the information was rejected, leaving the way open for such cases as Smethurst’s: spare the journalist but attack the source.  According to Law Council president Arthur Moses, the protection is shabby, a mere “mirage because it does not cover a journalist’s source.”

The other unspoken and unscripted assumption is how anaemic public interest defences work in Australian law.  Its operation starts from a reverse premise from US analogues, privileging the necessity of ignorance against the dangers of revelation.  The government keeps you ignorant for your own good; material published might be inimical to the public interest, but that “interest” is always that of the state, not the general citizenry.

So we come to the morning of June 4, with Smethurst readying to leave for work, only to witness Australian Federal Police bearing down heavily with a warrant.  A statement from the AFP subsequently confirmed that it had “executed a search warrant at a residence in the ACT suburb of Kingston today (4 June 2019)” on a matter relating “to an investigation into the alleged unauthorised disclosure of national security information that was referred to the AFP.”  The AFP “will allege the unauthorised disclosure of these specific documents undermines Australia’s security.”

The gravity of the allegations was affirmed in an update: “This warrant relates to the alleged publishing of information classified as an official secret, which is an extremely serious matter with the potential to undermine Australia’s national security.”

The incident in Canberra proved catching.  Hours after the AFP’s move on Smethurst, radio 2GB Drive presenter and Sky News contributor Ben Fordham revealed that he had also been the subject of an investigation after discussing the attempt of six asylum seeker boats to reach Australia.  The story piqued the interest of a Department of Home Affairs official, who proceeded to scold Fordham’s producer for discussing “highly confidential” material.  “In other words,” explained the broadcaster bluntly, “we weren’t supposed to know about it.”

In the course of Wednesday morning, with no settling of dust in order, a second raid by the AFP was executed against the Sydney offices of the national broadcaster, the ABC. Those named in the warrant – investigative journalists Dan Oakes and Sam Clark, along with ABC director of news Gaven Morris – were linked to The Afghan Files, a set of ghoulish stories in 2017 revealing allegations of unlawful killings by Australian special forces in Afghanistan.  Australia’s national security state has gotten very busy indeed.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, when pressed about Smethurst’s case, was untroubled.  Having played the role of fatherly minder of the Australian nation, he was not going to let any alleged breach of security go by.  Currently on a visit to the United Kingdom, he expressed little concern about the morning raid on a journalist’s home: “it never troubles me that our laws are being upheld.”

While News Corp has its demonic familiars (Rupert Murdoch’s influence hangs heavily), it was hard to disagree with the premise advanced by a spokesperson.  “This raid demonstrates a dangerous act of intimidation towards those committed to telling uncomfortable truths.  The raid was outrageous and heavy handed.”

The Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery, voicing agreement, considered the police raid “an outrageous move that should concern all Australians who value their freedom in an open society.”  With confidence, the statement asserted that it was “in the public interest for us to know of any plan for greater powers to monitor our messages.”

Chris Merritt, legal affairs editor of The Australian, saw the raid as an ominous signal to all investigative scribblers.  “Welcome to modern Australia – a nation where police raid journalists in order to track down and punish the exposure of leaks inside the federal government”.  But such an Australia was also chugging along merrily before the raid on Smethurst’s home.  (Like the unsuspecting priest living in a dystopian surveillance state, the police finally came for them.)

Should Assange ever make a return to the country of his birth, he is unlikely to find peace in this US satellite state, with its flimsy public disclosure and whistleblowing laws, its mirage-like protections.  Hunting publishers, journalists and their sources is de rigueur down under.

Findings of Torture: The UN Rapporteur and Julian Assange

Another crude and sad chapter, yet more evidence of a system’s vengeance against its challengers.  Julian Assange, like they dying Roman emperor Vespasian, may be transforming into a god of sorts, but the suffering of his mortal physical is finding its mark.  While some in the cynical, narcissistic press corps still find little to commend his case, the movement to highlight his fate, and the extra-territorial vengeance of the United States, grows.

Often reviled and dismissed as ineffectual if not irrelevant, the United Nations has offered Assange some measure of protection through its articulations and findings.  Ironically enough, powers happy to regard the UN as a mere bauble of international relations in not protecting human rights have dismissed it when action does take place.

The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, for instance, found in 2016 that the publisher’s conditions of confinement in the Ecuadorean embassy amounted to arbitrary detention.  “The Working Group considered that Mr Assange has been subjected to different forms of deprivation of liberty: initial detention in Wandsworth prison which was followed by house arrest and his confinement at the Ecuadorean embassy.”

The Working Group took the long view: to suggest that he had a choice in leaving the embassy at any point was farfetched and myopic.  Specific reference to the shoddy Swedish prosecution effort against Assange (“lack of diligence… in its investigations”) was also made, as it compounded the element of arbitrariness.  Any request to question him in Sweden could hardly be seen as “benign”.  How right they were.

Notwithstanding that, a resounding sneer from the British authorities, a bevy of black letter lawyers, and newspapers followed.  “He is not being detained arbitrarily,” The Guardian editorialised with its usual fair-friend weathered disposition.  The Working Group’s finding, according to international law authority Philippe Sands, was “poorly reasoned and unpersuasive”. Assange best give up the ghost and face the music.

This week, Professor Nils Melzer, the UN Special Rapporteur on torture, came to a conclusion as unsurprising as it was necessary.  After visiting Assange at the maximum security facility at Belmarsh on May 9, the UN official found that the publisher had been subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.  This was all part of him becoming the cause célèbre of “a relentless campaign of public mobbing, intimidation and defamation […] not only in the United States, but also in the United Kingdom, Sweden and, more recently, Ecuador.”  These governments had, be it through “an attitude of complacency at best, and of complicity at worst […] created an atmosphere of impunity encouraging Mr Assange’s uninhibited vilification and abuse.”

The fresh list of charges from US prosecutors – 17 additions to spice those centred on computer intrusion and conspiracy – alarmed Melzer.  “My most urgent concern is that, in the United States, Mr Assange would be exposed to a real risk of serious violations of his human rights, including his freedom of expression, his right to a fair trial and the prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

The cumulative and crushing effect of the charges – potentially 175 years imprisonment – astonished Melzer.  “This may well result in a life sentence without parole, or possibly even the death penalty, if further charges are added in the future.”  To this can be added a nine-year period of systematic judicial abuse, arbitrary confinement, oppressive isolation, harassment, embassy surveillance by Ecuador and the “deliberative collective ridicule, insults and humiliation, to open instigation of violence and even repeated calls for his assassination.”

While the conditions in Belmarsh do not currently make the grade of solitary confinement, they have been severe and inhospitable enough to cause concern.  Visits by Assange’s legal team are limited and sporadic; access to necessary case files and documents has been curbed, impairing chances of adequately preparing his legal defence.

Melzer also has a dig against the broader effort to attack journalism, with Assange as figurehead. “Since 2010, when WikiLeaks started publishing evidence of war crimes and torture committed by US forces, we have seen a sustained and concerted effort by several States towards getting Mr Assange extradited to the United States by prosecution, raising serious concern over the criminalisation of investigative journalism in violation of both the US constitution and international human rights law.”

Medical experts who accompanied Melzer on his visit also expressed opinions on Assange’s health, finding that his health had been “seriously affected by the extremely hostile and arbitrary environment he has been exposed to for many years.”  Physical ailments were found alongside the “symptoms typical for prolonged exposure to psychological torture, including extreme stress, chronic anxiety and intense psychological trauma.”

UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, taking a dog-eared leaf out of the book of excuses used against the Working Group, dismissed Melzer’s findings.  Assange always had an unimpaired, free choice (that word again).  “Assange chose to hide in the embassy and was always free to leave and face justice. The UN Special Rapporteur should allow British courts to make their judgments without his interference or inflammatory accusations.”

The BBC also noted the views of a justice ministry spokesperson, keen to disabuse sceptics that the British justice system might be suffering from judicial wear and tear.  The UK did not, it was asserted, participate in torture; its judges were independent and rights to appeal could be exercised.

The response to Hunt from the good professor was sharp: Assange “was about as ‘free to leave’ as a [sic] someone sitting on a rubberboat in a sharkpool.”  In his view, “UK courts have not shown the impartiality and objectivity required by the rule of law.”

Melzer’s words suffice as a damningly grim biography on the treatment levelled at Assange and the broader enterprise of publishing.  For two decades, having worked with “victims of war, violence and political persecution,” the rapporteur had “never seen a group of democratic States gang up to deliberately isolate, demonise and abuse a single individual for such a long time and with so little regard for human dignity and the rule of law.”

Lies in Politics: Boris Johnson, the Law and the European Union

An enduring memory of the 2016 Brexit campaign, so marked by the foppish-haired blusterer, Boris Johnson, was the claim that the European Union was hungrily drawing out from British coffers £350 million a week.  It was insufferable, unqualified and dishonest.  It was a claim reared in the atmosphere of outrageous deception marking the effort on all sides of the debate regarding Britain’s relationship with the EU.  But some deceptions have the ballast to go further than others.

Rooted in the machinery of politics, such deceptions might have stayed there, deemed those natural outrages of a not so noble vocation. After all, political figures do make lying an art, if a very low one.  But Johnson has not been so fortunate.  A private prosecution has been launched against the aspiring Tory leader and possible replacement for Prime Minister Theresa May based on allegations he “repeatedly lied and misled the British public as to the cost of EU membership” with specific reference to the £350 million figure.  Marcus Ball, the initiator of the action and a Remain campaigner, had the heavy artillery £236,000 will bring, the very healthy result of crowdfunding.

Johnson’s legal team was quick to suggest that the whole matter was vexatious, an around about effort to question the legitimacy of the 2016 referendum result.  A source close to Johnson (and who might that be?) told the BBC that the case was a “politically motivated attempt to reverse Brexit.”  Adrian Darbishire QC, representing Johnson, was withering in describing the action as a political stunt intended to create mischief in an effort “to regulate the content and quality of political debate” using the criminal law.

Such debate might well feature figures and claims, and Johnson, at best, could only be accused of using the £350m sum for no other purpose than “in the course of a contested political campaign.”  Such campaigns are bound to contain a range of claims duly “challenged, contradicted and criticised.”

Ball’s legal representative, Lewis Power QC, took the broader view.  The proposed prosecution was not an attempt to “seek to prevent or delay Brexit”.  There was a larger principle at stake: “when politicians lie, democracy dies”.  Much to be said about that; but taken to its logical conclusion, no democracy can be said to be extant, let alone breathing, given how alive the lie industry is.

Ball’s case, nonetheless, has an ethical sting to it, and seems to be one of whether lies have a meaningful role in politics.  Ball’s legal representative was adamant: “Lying on a national and international platform undermines public confidence in politics… and brings both public offices held by the (proposed) defendant into disrepute”.  The law offered a solution: “misconduct to such a degree requires criminal sanction.  There is no justification or excuse for such misconduct.”

In its purest sense, the case has the trimmings of Michel de Montaigne, that wonderful man of letters who, four centuries ago, thought the lie reprehensible.  In “On Liars”, he is curt and unforgiving.  “Lying is indeed an accursed vice.  We are men, and we have relations with one other only by speech.  If we recognised the horror and gravity of an untruth, we should more justifiably punish it with fire than any other crime.”

In 1975, Adrienne Rich wrote with more poignancy than flames that, “The possibilities that exist between two people, or among a group of people are a kind of alchemy.  They are the most interesting thing in life.  The liar is someone who keeps losing sight of these possibilities.” Not quite as savage as Montaigne, but a similar point on value and relations bound by speech.  Certainly, when it comes to politics, Rich is clear that the loss of perspective the liar suffers is acute, being most “damaging to public life, human possibility, and our collective progress”.

Such instances may seem a bit high barred.  The politician is a creature of deception and dissimulation, and avoiding the compromising wet by keeping to high and dry moral ground may be a difficult thing.  Even Montaigne also offers a subtle exit, if not excuse, for one economic with the truth: he who has involuntary defects – a poor memory, for instance – should be treated kindly; those with intent to deceive – well, that’s something else entirely.  “Not without reason is it said that no one who is not conscious of having a sound memory should set up to be a liar.”

When Hannah Arendt turned her mind to the nature of lying in politics in 1971, seeking to understand the entire episode of the Pentagon Papers and their publication, a more complex view was advanced.  “Truthfulness,” she laments, “has never been counted among the political virtues, and lies have always been regarded as justifiable tools in political dealings.” But moral outrage alone, she insists, is insufficient when faced with deception.  When we confront what she describes as “factual truths”, we face the problem of compellability.  “Facts need testimony to be remembered and trustworthy witnesses to be established in order to find a secure dwelling place in the domain of human affairs.  From this, it follows that no factual statement can ever be beyond doubt.” Hence such generously distributed, and acceptable notions, as the £350m figure.

Whatever might have been busying the mind of District Judge Margot Coleman, she was sufficiently persuaded by Ball’s daring suggestion to take the matter further. In a written decision published on Wednesday, the judge ordered Johnson to attend Westminster Magistrate’s Court at a date not yet specified.  There, a decision will be made to assess whether the case has sufficiently nimble legs to get to the crown court.  “Having considered all the relevant factors, I am satisfied that this is a proper case to issue a summons as requested for the three offences [of misconduct in public office].”

Should the case against Johnson stick, it will ripple and trouble.  For private citizens to succeed in actions against politicians who lie would be astonishing, if not perplexing, for practitioners of the political art.  Time to add Montaigne et al to the House of Commons reading list.

The End of Theresa May

The vultures of the British conservative party have gathered, and the individual who seemed to thrive in failure, to gain momentum in defeat, has finally yielded.  UK Prime Minister Theresa May will leave the way for change of leadership on June 7.  Never known for any grand gestures of emotion, the Maybot finally gave way to it.

It had begun rather optimistically in 2016.  May would preside over a Britain leaving the European Union in good order.  She even dared suggest that an agenda of domestic reform might be implemented.  Neither has transpired, and clues were already apparent with the blithely optimistic trio in charge of overseeing the Brexit process: David Davis, as a fabulously ill-equipped Brexit Secretary, Liam Fox holding the reins as international trade secretary and Boris Johnson keeping up appearances at the Foreign Office.  But for all that it was May who seemed to insist that all was possible: the UK could still leave the customs union and single market, repudiate free movement and wriggle out of the jurisdiction of the European Court.  Independent trade deals with non-EU countries would be arrived at but similar trading agreements could still continue in some form with the EU. And there would be no Irish border issue.

Problems, however, surfaced early.  May’s leadership style problematic.  Her cabinet reshuffles (read bloodletting) did much to create animosity.  Some eight ministers were sacked in the first round, with all but one under 50 at the time.  They were, as Stephen Bush puts it, “right in the middle of their political careers, a dangerous time to leave them with nothing to lose.”

Her decision to go to the polls in 2017 to crush the opposition was also another act of a folly-ridden leader.  From a position of strength from which she could instruct her party on the hard truths of Brexit instead of covering their ears, she gave Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn ample kicking room to revive his party while imposing upon herself a considerable handicap.  EU negotiators knew they were negotiating with a significantly weakened leader.

Then came the cold showers, initiated by such wake-up alarms as shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer’s suggestion in 2017 that a transitional phase would have to come into effect after the UK had thrown off the EU.  As Starmer observed at the time, “Constructive ambiguity – David Davis’s description of the government’s approach – can only take you so far.”

May duly suffered three horrendous defeats in Parliament, all to do with a failure to pass the Withdrawal Agreement, and fought off the daggers of usurpation within her own party. She had also had to convince the EU that two extensions to Brexit were warranted. The last throw of the dice featured bringing Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to the negotiating table.  To a large extent, that had been encouraged by the third failure to pass the Withdrawal Agreement on March 29th.

On May 21, the prime minister outlined the latest incarnation of a plan that has never moved beyond the stage of life support.  It had that air of a captain heading for the iceberg of inevitability.  She remained committed “to deliver Brexit and help our country move beyond the division of the referendum and into a better future.”  It was spiced with the sweet nothings of forging that “country that works for everyone”, all with “the chance to get on in life and to go as far as their own talent and hard work can take them”.

She hoped for alternative arrangements to the Irish backstop. The new Brexit deal would “set out in law that the House of Commons will approve the UK’s objectives for the negotiations on our future relationship with the EU and they will approve the treaties governing that relationship before the Government signs them.”  A new Workers’ Rights Bill would be introduced to guarantee equivalent protections to UK workers afforded to those in the EU, perhaps even better.  No change to the level of environmental protection would take place, something to be policed by a new Office of Environmental Protection.  But May’s concessions on the subject of a customs union and a proposed second referendum as part of the package, both largely designed to placate Labour, were too much for her cabinet.  Her resignation was assured.

The resignation speech was a patchwork attempt to salvage a difficult legacy.  It was “right to persevere, even when the odds against success seemed high.”  But it would be for her “successor to seek a way forward that honours the result of the referendum. To succeed, he or she will have to find consensus in parliament where I have not.”

She had led “a decent, moderate and patriotic Conservative government on the common ground of British politics”. She spoke of “a union of people”, standing together regardless of background, skin colour “or who we love”.  In an effort to move beyond a pure and exclusive focus on Brexit, she tried to single out such domestic achievements as gender pay reporting and the race disparity audit.  This led such conservative outlets as The Spectator to wonder whether such initiatives had “invented victimhood where none existed.”

There will be as many post-mortems on May’s tenure as Brexit proposals.  Steve Richards, writing for The New European, felt May never had a chance.  It was a period of uncertainty made permanent.  With each Brexit secretary resignation, with each parliamentary defeat of the exit plan, “nothing much happened, only an accumulative sense of doom.”  That was a ready-made outcome.

The list of contenders seeking to replace May is a who’s who of agents, less of assuring stability than guaranteed chaos shadowed by enormous question marks.  Furthermore, anyone willing to offer themselves up for replacement is likely to face similar treatment to that given May.

The current stable of contenders are of varying, uneven talents.  Environment secretary Michael Gove and former Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab were rather late to the fold.  They joined Matt Hancock, Jeremy Hunt, Boris Johnson, Esther McVey, Andrea Leadsom and Rory Stewart.  Political watchers and the party faithful will be keeping an eye on wobbliness and wavering: foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt had campaigned in the 2016 referendum to remain in the UK; likewise the self-touted tech-savvy Hancock.

With an individual such as Boris Johnson, you are assured a spell of chaos.  Incapable of mastering a brief, his temperament is utterly hostile to stable ministerial appointments.  He tries to make up for that with a buffoonish, public school air that treats certain character flaws as gifts of eccentricity.  While he is liked amongst the conservative fan base, his parliamentary colleagues are not so sure.  The Bold as British formula is only going to carry you so far; the hard negotiators in the EU will attest to that.

Monsanto, Scientific Deception and Cancer

Money may not be able to buy the purest love, but it can buy the best, life-ending cancer.  For Monsanto, giant of rule and misrule in matters of genetically modified crops, known for bullying practices towards farmers, things have not been so rosy of late.  Ever the self-promoter of saving the world an agricultural headache (biotech crops being the earth’s touted nutritional salvation), the company has run into a set of legal snags that have raided its funds and risk sinking it, along with Bayer AG, the company that bought it last year for $63 billion.

A spate of legal cases have begun entering the folklore of resistance to the company.  Central to it is the use of glyphosate, the world’s most widely used weedkiller marketed since 1974 as Roundup, and a core chemical in the agrochemical industry. In 2015, it was deemed by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) “probably carcinogenic to humans” in addition to being genotoxic and clearly carcinogenic to animals.

The legal train commenced last August, when a state court in San Francisco found for Dewayne “Lee” Johnson, a 46-year-old former school groundskeeper, ordering $289 million in damages.  (The amount was subsequently reduced to $78 million.)  The jury had been satisfied that the use of the Roundup weedkiller, with its glyphosate constitution, had, in fact, been the cause of Johnson’s cancer.  They also found that the company had paid insufficient heed to warning the plaintiff of the impending dangers, also acting, in the process, with “malice or oppression”.

The picture that emerged in trial was of a beast keen to keep critics at bay and intimidate opponents.  Attorney Brent Wisner was keen to press the issue. “Monsanto has specifically gone out of its way to bully… and to fight independent researchers.” Wisner’s evidence – a selection of internal Monsanto emails – showed the steadfast rejection on its part of warnings critical and researched. “They fought science.”

Not so, came the rebutting if not so convincing argument from Monsanto lawyer George Lombardi. “The scientific evidence is overwhelming that glyphosate-based products do not cause cancer and did not cause Mr Johnson’s cancer.”

The message was very much in keeping with Monsanto’s program for colouring and fudging empirical data on the use of herbicides.  The 2015 IARC findings, despite being on some level qualified, infuriated the company. Christopher Wild, the director of the agency, was unequivocal in his interview with Le Monde: the company had gone rabid.  “We have been attacked in the past, we have faced smear campaigns, but this time we are the target of an orchestrated campaign of an unseen scale and duration.”  Monsanto dismissed the agency’s conclusions as “junk science”, the product of “cherry-picking” driven by a biased agenda.

The company duly harried the agency, using the law firm Hollingsworth to demand, “Drafts, comments, data tables… everything that has gone through the IARC system.”  In the event that the agency decline to do so, the firm requested and instructed the agency “to immediately take all reasonable steps in your power to preserve all such files intact pending formal discovery requests issued via a US court.”

What commenced was a concerted effort to cook the science and massage the results.  Monsanto chief scientist William Heydens proposed one method of doing so: ghost-writing papers under the thinly veiled cover of scientific legitimacy.  As Heydens noted in an email, “we would be keeping the cost down by us doing the writing and they would just edit & sign their names so to speak.”  This was a practice not unknown to the company; a paper had been so authored in 2000, one conspicuously short on detail regarding the affiliation of Monsanto employees.

In the safety stakes, Monsanto was also careful to ensure that the Environmental Protection Agency was on board – at least when it came to terminating or frustrating investigations.  Jess Rowland, formerly a manager in the EPA’s pesticide division, is said to have boasted in an April 2015 conversation with a Monsanto regulatory affairs manager that, “If I can kill this I should get a medal.”  In October that year, the EPA’s Cancer Assessment Review Committee (CARC), chaired by Rowland (miracle of miracles) produced an internal report claiming that glyphosate, contrary to the IARC findings, were “not likely to be carcinogenic to humans.”

The Johnson case was significant for the court’s allowance of extensive scientific argument.  This flatfooted Mansanto (now Bayer’s) legal team.  It was an approach that would be repeated in subsequent trials.  In March this year, a unanimous jury verdict in the federal court in San Francisco ordered the company to fork out damages to the value of $80 million for failing to warn Edwin Hardeman, the plaintiff, of any cancer risks associated with the use of Roundup.

A trifecta was achieved this month when a jury of the Superior Court of the State of California for the County of Alameda was willing to find that Roundup weedkiller caused the non-Hodgkin lymphoma of the plaintiffs Alberta and Alva Pillioid. It took 17 days of trial testimony leading to the decision to award the couple $1 billion each.

The order of punitive damages centred on the finding that Monsanto “engaged in conduct with malice, oppression, or fraud committed by one or more officers, directors or managing agents of Monsanto”.

The next case of interest against Monsanto is being pressed by Sharlean Gordon with an entire cohort of fellow litigants, set to take place in St. Louis County Circuit court on August 19.  The formula is tried and true, alleging that they were harmed as “a direct and proximate result of [Monsanto’s] negligent, wilful, and wrongful conduct in connection with the design, development, manufacture, testing, packaging, promoting, marketing, distribution, and/or sale of Roundup and/or other Monsanto glyphosate-containing products.”

Legal watchers, thousands of other litigants, and those in St. Louis County, will be curious to see whether the company finally gets some respite after its Californian hammerings.  It employs a considerable labour force in the area and has been very much in the charity game.  But the sympathy of local jurors should not detract from the St. Louis City Court’s reputation as one of the more favourable forums to seek mammoth verdicts against corporations.  Sympathies for Monsanto-Bayer might well have truly curdled by then.

The Espionage Act and Julian Assange: The US Justice Department Expands Its Case

It seemed flimsy from the start, but the US Department of Justice is keen to get their man.  What has certainly transpired of late is that Mike Pompeo was being unusually faithful to the truth when director of the CIA: every means would be found to prosecute the case against WikiLeaks and Julian Assange.  His assessment of the publishing outfit in 2017 as a “non-state hostile intelligence service” finds its way into the latest Justice Department’s indictment, which adds a further 18 counts.

The prosecution effort was initially focused on a charge of computer intrusion, with a stress on conspiracy.  It was feeble but intentionally narrow, fit for extradition purpose.  Now, a few more eggs have been added to the basket in a broader effort to capture the entire field of national security publishing.  The Espionage Act of 1917, that ghoulish reminder of police state nervousness, has been brought into play.  Drafted to combat spies as the United States made its way into the First World War, the act has become a blunt instrument against journalists and whistleblowers.  But Assange, being no US citizen, is essentially being sought out for not abiding by the legislation.  The counts range from the first, “conspiracy to receive national defense information” (s. 793(g) of the Espionage Act) to “obtaining national defense information,” to the disclosures of such information.

The first part is problematic, as prosecutors are arguing that Assange does not have to release the said “national defence” information to an unauthorised recipient. In short, as a publisher to the world at large of such material, he can be punished.  The second round of charges, drawn from section 793(b) of the Act, makes the prosecution purpose even clearer.  The provision, dealing with the copying, taking, making, obtaining, or attempting to do so, material connected with national defence, would suggest the punishment of the source itself.  Not so, claim the prosecutors: the publisher or journalist can be caught in its web.

Section 793(c), upon which four counts rest, is intended to capture instances of soliciting the leaks in question or the recipient of that information, one who “agrees or attempts to receive or obtain it, that it has been or will be obtained, taken, made or disposed of by any person contrary to the provisions of this chapter.”

If there was any doubt about what the indictment does to media organisations who facilitate the means to receive confidential material or leaks, the following should allay it: “WikiLeaks’s website explicitly solicited, otherwise restricted, and until September 2010, ‘classified materials’.  As the website then-stated, ‘WikiLeaks accepts classified, censored, or otherwise restricted material of political, diplomatic or ethical significance.”  From the perspective of prosecutors, “Assange and WikiLeaks have repeatedly sought, obtained, and disseminated information that the United States classified due to the serious risk that unauthorized disclosure could harm the national security of the United States.”

Seething with venom, the indictment also takes issue with instances where Assange sought to popularise the effort to obtain leaks.  Assange “intended the ‘Most Wanted Leaks’ list to encourage and cause individuals to illegally obtain and disclose protected information, including classified information, to WikiLeaks contrary to law.”

The standout feature of this angle is that Chelsea Manning, the key source for WikiLeaks as former intelligence analyst for the US Army, is less important than Assange the mesmerising Svengali.  It was the WikiLeaks’s publisher who convinced Manning to respond to his seductive call, a point the prosecutors insist is proved by search terms plugged into the classified network search engine, Intelink.

The response from the scribbling fraternity, and anybody who might wish to write about national security matters, has been one of bracing alarm, tinged by characteristic apologias.  On the latter point, Assange the principle, and Assange the man, have proven confusing to fence sitters and traditional Fourth Estate sell outs.

Sam Vinograd shines in this regard as CNN national security analyst, an important point because such hacks previously served as advisors or agents to political masters.  They can be trusted to toe the line.  In Vinograd’s case, it was as senior advisor in the Obama administration.  Triumphantly, she claims, Assange “knowingly endangered the lives of journalists, religious leaders, human rights advocates, and political dissidents and did incredible harm to our national security.”  No evidence is supplied for any of these assertions – the claims in the indictment will do.  Obscenely, we are to take at face value that the US Justice Department is doing us, not to mention journalists, a favour.  Wither analysis.

The mistake often made is that such previous experience as a national security advisor or some such will enable in-stable media figures to speak openly about topics when the opposite is true.  Their goggles remain permanently blurred to the broader implications of punishing media outlets: they, after all, speak power to truth.

Those like John Pilger, one of Assange’s more tireless defenders, have been unequivocal and, thus far, accurate.  “The war on Julian Assange is now a war on all,” he tweeted.  “Eighteen absurd charges including espionage send a burning message to every journalist, every publisher.”  WikiLeaks’s current publisher-in-chief, Kristinn Hrafnsson expressed “no satisfaction in saying ‘I told you so’ to those who for 9 years scorned us for warning this moment would come.”

The ACLU has also made the pertinent point that the charges against Assange are easily replicable across the board: do it to Assange and you might give the nod of approval to other states to do the same.  They “are equally dangerous for US journalists who uncover the secrets of other nations. If the US can prosecute a foreign publisher for violating our secrecy laws, there’s nothing preventing China, or Russia, from doing the same.”  Fairly precise, that.

Trevor Timm, Freedom of the Press Foundation executive director, did not mince his words. “Put simply,” came his statement, “these unprecedented charges against Julian Assange and WikiLeaks are the most significant and terrifying threat to the First Amendment in the 21st century.”

The silver lining – for even in this charred landscape of desperation, there is one – is the overzealous nature of this effort.  For one thing, proving espionage requires the necessary mental state, namely the “intent or reason to believe that the [leaked] information is to be used to the injury of the United States, or to the advantage of any foreign nation.” It was precisely such grounds that failed to convince Colonel Denise Lind in Manning’s trial, who found that the analyst was not “aiding the enemy” in supplying material to WikiLeaks.

By larding the charge folder against Assange so heavily, the political intention of the prosecutors is clear.  It reeks of overreach, an attempt to get ahead of the queue of Sweden.  A sensible reading of any extradition effort now must conclude that Assange is as much a target of political interest as anything else. Not a hacker, nor a figure so personalised as to be reviled, but a symbol of publishing itself, persecuted by the only superpower on the planet.  The case, surmises Edward Snowden, “will decide the future of media.”

Challenging Orthodoxies: Alabama’s Anti-Abortion Law

It seems like a grand ploy of massive distraction.  On the surface, the move by Alabama to place the most onerous restrictions on the granting of an abortion has become a lighting-rod of conviction for Democrat agitators.  And not just them.

The fear, and one with suggestive implication, is that various legislatures are paving the way to push Roe v Wade into the domain of a Supreme Court so conservative it is being touted as reactionary.  Colorado lawmakers, earlier this year, made a similar attempt to pass a bill banning elective abortions every bit as nasty as the Alabama version. The feeling is that the 1973 decision will be terminated in the name of foetus worship taking way the injunction against states from interfering in a woman’s right to an abortion within the first trimester.

Roe was never, in truth, such a radical innovation in the field of social reform.  It, for one, heavily circumscribes the way choice operates for a woman in terms of her relationship with the foetus.  Its celebration of a woman’s autonomy leaves the designation of how it is used, not in the hands of the carrier, but the Supreme Court.

What certain stone throwing conservatives have repeatedly disliked about it is that the decision was reformist at all. “Roe,” tut tuts Rich Lowry of the National Review, “is judicially wrought social legislation pretending to the status of constitutional law.”  It was a product of such judicial activism that produced the Miranda and Griswold cases, “as much a highhanded attempt to impose a settlement on a hotly contested political question as the abhorrent Dred Scott decision denying the rights of blacks.”

Lowry’s swipe belies the broader problem facing anti-abortion advocates, many of whom simply think that the legislators in that good red state have lost the plot.  The Alabama move is being seen on the part of some on the right as too extreme, painting advocates who favour limiting abortion into a narrow, extreme corner.  In the words of conservative pundit Jonathan V. Last, having such a law was the very counter-reproductive thing the movement feared, “the most damaging development to the pro-life movement in decades.”

HB314 is a heavy artillery shell for the anti-abortion movement, reclassifying abortion as a Class A felony. The implication of this is gruesome enough: those found guilty of falling foul of the law, notably those providing such services, may spend up to 99 years in prison.

Alabama governor, Kay Ivey, ennobled bill HB314 with words mindful of the great Sky God that continues to mark significant stretches of US political thought. (In Freedom’s Land, the unseen and unknowable have traditional anti-democratic tendencies.)  “To the bill’s many supporters, this legislation stands as a powerful testament to Alabamians’ deeply held belief that every life is precious and that every life is a sacred gift from God.” HB314’s sponsor, Rep Terry Collins, was attempting to be more pragmatic in a political sense, claiming that HB314 was part of the grand plan to subvert and ultimately sink Roe v Wade.

The media presses in Alabama have been filled with pungent responses, many indignant, others glazing in their holy reflection.  A Guest Voices segment for AL.com, part of the Alabama Media Group, made rich reading.  Rene Washington of Birmingham refused to accept the anti-abortion rights law as one of protecting life. “The abysmal statistics on children’s health and welfare prove that.”  The ban was a traditional, based on old issues of control, be they “religious, patriarchal and cultural.”

Savannah Crabtree, keen to remind us of her age (23 years old), wrote of having a uterus and living in the state of Alabama. “And I am scared.”  A troubled Crabtree was puzzled that the governor had expressed no reservation, racing the bill into law. “I hoped that maybe, because she is a woman, she’d empathize with a 12-year-old rape victim seeking an abortion more so than the 25 men who voted on the bill in the Senate did.”

The worriers and activists have come out.  “This,” laments Democratic strategist Jess McIntosh, “is the endgame of many years chipping away at our freedoms.” For McIntosh, a tyrannical instinct is finally being played out in US jurisprudence – a play, as it were, to alter the court’s reformist agenda.  “They’ve waited for the moment they believed the courts would overturn precedent and go against the overwhelming will of the people.”

For a strategist, McIntosh is far from sharp.  (She did work for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign.)  The Alabama law, along with any aspiring facsimiles, risks falling at the first hurdle, given that an appellate court is bound to give defenders of the bill a good going over.  The issue of placing “undue burdens” on a woman’s access to abortion services would come into play.  As Kim Wehle explains, the Alabama law is “by any stretch” an “undue burden” because it entails no abortions except in instances where the “unborn child has a lethal anomaly” in order “to avoid serious risk to the unborn child’s mother” or in instances of “ectopic pregnancies” (where the fertilized egg finds itself implanted outside the uterus, often in fallopian tubes which might burst causing bleeding, infection and death to the mother).

Keeping the Democrats noisily busy is a Trump tactic, and he has kept markedly reticent on not wishing to push views on the Alabama move.  A tweet re-iterated his stance as being “strongly pro-life, with three exceptions – rape, incest and protecting the life of the mother.”  It was, he suggested, “the same position taken by Ronald Reagan.”  Similar exceptions can be found in thirty-three states and the District Colombia, which allow funding for the tripartite list of exceptions.  A range of superstitions dot the legislative provisions of other states: five, for instance, demand that women be counselled on a claimed link between abortion and breast cancer, one firmly lodged in the realm of fantasy.

Alabama’s HB314, however, in its crudely blanket application, leaves minimal room for exceptions.  It is savagely onerous, even for conservatives.  The wheels may well be in motion for certain brands of foetus defenders, but citizens with uteri can well be comforted that they will move in retarded fashion.

Fantasies of Humanity: The Christchurch Pledge and a Regulated Internet

It had to come.  A massacre, broadcast in real time and then shared with viral automatism; the inevitable shock, and the counter from the authorities.  The Christchurch shootings, inflicting fifty-one deaths upon worshippers at two mosques in quiet New Zealand on March 15 this year, have spurred Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.  Laws have been passed regulating guns in her country.  Interest has increased in monitoring white nationalist groups.  But Ardern was never keen keeping the matter local.

In Paris, the NZ Prime Minister, meeting French President Emmanuel Macron, brought other leaders and US tech giants to make a global pledge to “eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online.”  The cheer squad feel behind the “Christchurch Call to Action” was unmistakable.  Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau highlighted the “deadly consequences” of “hateful content online” and his enthusiasm behind the project. “Together, we can create a world where all people – no matter their faith, where they live, or where they are from – are safe and secure both on and offline.”  Stirring stuff.

The opening of the pledge starts with a description: “On 15 March 2019, people looked on in horror as, for 17 minutes, a terrorist attack against two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, was live streamed.”  The emphasis is significant here: not merely the atrocity itself but the means of its dissemination.  Stress falls upon the fact that “the live stream was viewed some 4,000 times before being removed.”

The premise of the call is exaggerated and forced: that the events were caused by online content the way a child’s violence can be caused by gormless hours of glued-to-screen viewing. Ignore the tingling motivating factors of the shooter in question, a view that was nurtured in the atmosphere of acceptable intolerance.  Ignore, as well, the contested, troubled literature on the “contagion” thesis behind mass shootings and killings.  The shooter becomes less significant than the act of streaming his exploits, or sharing unsavoury matter with chatty dolts on certain chat forums. “The attack was livestreamed, went viral and remains available on the web despite the measures taken to remove it.”

The call is framed is a clunky exercise pillowed by the language of openness, only to then flatten it.  It articulates “the conviction that a free, open and secure internet offers extraordinary benefits to society.  Respect for freedom of expression is fundamental.”  But there is an unqualified injunction: “no one has the right to create and share terrorist and violent extremist content online.”

It seems fluffy, the stuff of head-in-the-cloud enthusiasm, but lodged in such calls is a desperate, confused message with sinister implications.  Commitments, outlined by Trudeau’s office, include “building more inclusive, resilient communities to counter violent radicalisation” and “enforcing rules laws that stop the production and dissemination of terrorist and extremist content online.” Media outlets would also be told “to apply rules when reporting on terrorist events” to avoid amplification of the content.  This is ignorance as antidote, not reason as solution.

Online providers, in turn, are urged to, “Take transparent, specific measures seeking to prevent the upload of terrorist and violent extremist content and to prevent its dissemination on social media and similar content-sharing services”.  The qualifying point is that such measures are “consistent with human rights and fundamental freedoms.”  Transparent processes would include “publishing the consequences of sharing terrorist and violent extremist content”.

Live streaming is the true bugbear here, with the need to implement “immediate, effective measures to mitigate the specific risk that terrorist and violent extremist content is disseminated”. Algorithms that might magnify the spread of material should also be reviewed.

A more “humane” internet is central to Ardern’s vision which, read another way, is one more regulated and policed of its content and uses.  This lies more in the realm of social engineering than it does in free self-correction, the call for presbyters of cyberspace to cull and remove what states, or the tech enforcers, deem inappropriate.  Given that “extremism” and “terrorism” remain very much in the eye of the censoring beholder, the dangers of this should be apparent.  Dissidents, contrarians and commentators are bound to fall foul of the project.

The regulatory attitude outlined in the pledge has been twinned with a business object.  Silicon Valley, to remain in clover, has been convinced to make overtures and moves dealing with the sharing of “terrorist” and “extremist” content.  Having become a punching bag for anxious regulators, Facebook announced that Facebook Live would be barred to those who, in the words of company official Guy Rosen, “have broken certain rules… including our Dangerous Organizations and Individuals policy”.  A “one strike” policy would be introduced.  Technical advances to combat “adversarial media manipulation” and improved “image and video analysis technology” were needed.

With such high minded calls for regulation and control from government voices, a seminal warning is necessary.  John Perry Barlow, in A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, began his call quite differently.  Traditional states were the problem.  “Governments of the Industrial world, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us.  You have no sovereignty where we gather.”

Such governments, with efforts to bring in the behemoths of Silicon Valley, have stated their clear purpose: to intrude upon Barlow’s world of the cyber mind and clip any sovereign pretext that might have ever existed.  The internet, for them, remains a vigilante playground, difficult to police with its bursts of anarchic sentiment and primeval insensibilities.  While Ardern’s sentiments are probably genuine enough, their authenticity hardly matters before the dangers such initiatives will create.  Symptoms have been confused, if not totally muddled, with causes; technology has been marked as the great threat.