Coffee houses and civil liberty

For 11 days in 1675 King Charles II tried to suppress London’s coffee houses because they were regarded as “places where the disaffected met, and spread scandalous reports concerning the conduct of His Majesty and his Ministers“.

Spectateur by Jessie Romaneix. Used under license.
Spectateur by Jessie Romaneix. Used under license.

Seventeenth century coffee houses were great social levellers, open to all men from all walks of life, whatever their social status, and as a result were associated with equality and republicanism. Because they became meeting places where business could be carried on, news exchanged they were influential places – they provided bankers, intellectuals and artists with a forum to discuss political development and to carry out business. Indeed Lloyd’s of London and the London Stock Exchange both owe their very existence to the London coffee houses.

But with their popularity came controversy.

In 1674 The Women’s Petition Against Coffee was set up in London. Women complained that men were never to be found at home during times of domestic crises, since they were always enjoying themselves in the coffee houses. They circulated a petition protesting “the grand inconveniences accruing to their sex from the excessive use of the drying and enfeebling liquor”.

Strange to think that something so everyday as a coffee shop could on the one hand stir up such emotion and political fear and on the other provide a platform for some of the oldest and most successful companies in the world. Stranger yet that we are still making the same, wrong headed, decisions 333 years later.

Yesterday saw BBC newsbeat report that the “US Army warns of Twitter danger“:

US intelligence agencies are worried that terrorists might start to use new communication technologies like the blogging site Twitter to plan and organise attacks.

It goes on to quote the US Army report saying that:

Twitter is already used by some members to post and support extremist ideologies and perspectives.

Terrorists could theoretically use Twitter social networking in the US as an operational tool.

This follows the UK government’s desire to develop a central database of all mobile phone and internet traffic giving the police and security services easier access to the data.

As with coffee houses during the 17th century, the Internet is currently a new thing – one that is challenging and scary for some while at the same time providing an environment where communication and commerce can flourish for others. And unfortunately for us this presents a challenge for society today. The Internet is something that has happened to our current generation of policy makers – rather than something that they have grown up with – and while that is true it will be seen through the glasses of those that see it as something that is special and different – just as coffee shops were to King Charles II. Or as Douglas Adams puts it:

…it’s [the Internet] very new to us. Newsreaders still feel it is worth a special and rather worrying mention if, for instance, a crime was planned by people ‘over the Internet.’ They don’t bother to mention when criminals use the telephone or the M4, or discuss their dastardly plans ‘over a cup of tea,’ though each of these was new and controversial in their day.

But there are difference, for starters in 1675 King Charles II realised his mistake and reversed his decision after 11 days. Today’s politicians don’t appears to be as humble as 17th century kings – which is a little worrying. But more importantly today’s technologies provide massive leverage – and in situations like this that’s a problem.

When a government gives a QUANGO, the police or security services a new power that doesn’t necessarily  mean that that power can be acted upon. Indeed there are lots of pieces of legislation that aren’t acted upon, because they are just silly but there are also laws that aren’t acted upon because they are too difficult or too expensive to do so, or at least too expensive to do so indiscriminately.

Society has to date had a useful safety value – the police need to apply common sense and intelligence when apply their powers. There is no practical way in which they can apply all laws, as written, indiscriminately instead they needed to decide where and how best to apply those laws. And in return society and individuals regulated their activity – taking responsibility for their actions. Most people choose not to break the law, not because they think they will get caught and punished but because we moderate our actions based on social norms and our own moral compass. The police and security services provide a backstop should this go wrong.

But things are changing – big centralised databases that record everyone’s phone calls and email, keep track of DNA profiles, or otherwise store your Identity makes it much, much easier for a government to enforce a piece of legislation universally, indiscriminately. The cost associated with running a query across a database of phone calls is practically nil and this means a government no longer need prioritise its searches as it once did. There’s no point – you might as well just search the database for suspicious patterns in the data, since it costs next to nothing to do so.

Yes people use the Internet to do bad thing, and quite possibly Twitter is one of those services that bad people use. But they also plan bad things in coffee house but for the last 300 odd years we’ve realised that trying to legislate against coffee houses is a bad thing for society. I suspect in generations to come we will view the Internet in the same way – recognising that bad people, do bad thing and one of the place they do bad things is on the Internet but the Internet is just another platform, like coffee houses.

11 responses to “Coffee houses and civil liberty”

  1. Interesting you post this in the week I finished Markman Ellis’ “The Coffee House: A Cultural History“.

    It’s worth noting more explicitly one of the issues Charles faced in closing the coffee houses: whilst they were full of revolutionary and potentially dangerous thoughts, they were also great places to spy on revolutionaries, and to close them would also close a great source of intelligence.

    If you know you can gain intelligence from a source, why on earth would you close it? You’d only have to start guessing where the revolutionaries were hanging out again.

    For a short while at least, the coffee houses, and Twitter, act as a kind of honeypot.

  2. @Tom good point.

    And of course if people want to avoid being snooped on it’s not very difficult to avoid. So what we’re left with is poor legislation that infringes the liberty of those that have done nothing wrong. Scares off stupid baddies who don’t know how to be secure while doing nothing to catch the cleaver bad guys.

    Might go and buy Markman Elis’s book too.

  3. […] Coffee houses and civil liberty « "Yes people use the Internet to do bad thing, and quite possibly Twitter is one of those services that bad people use. But they also plan bad things in coffee house but for the last 300 odd years we’ve realised that trying to legislate against coffee houses is a bad thing for society." I recently finished Markman Ellis' book on coffee houses, and so Tom's post had a special kind of relevance. (tags: security intelligence spying coffeehouse ) […]

  4. At the risk of me biting the hand that feeds you, I’m a bit annoyed that the Newsbeat story is so uncritical of the US Army report. For example, their list of people using Twitter, as noted by many delicious users[1], contains such unthreatening categories as ‘vegetarians’ – should we really be worried about people who don’t like bacon?

    Another query is that Newsbeat didn’t examine why the report says “Terrorists could theoretically use Twitter social networking in the US as an operational tool” but excludes other countries – does Twitter not work in the UK? (As someone pointed out to me yesterday, you can’t receive SMSes any more, but is that crucial for planning terror?)

    Your post does a good job of explaining why Twitter (and email, and mobile phones, and other ‘new’ media) are just extra tools for communication, good and bad. I just wish that BBC News would occasionally find a place to say the same thing.


  5. @Paul. In my experience most vegetarians are so despite their love of bacon, not because of it. ;)

    But also, I am amazed. I have never yet seen a single item of even the most passing interest on a twitter feed. It seems to me to be the epitome of the triviality of the internet. 250 years ago, Jonathan Edwards predicted that one day we would be able to instantly communicate with other people all around the world and that this would be a wonderful way of saving time. He was at least half right.

  6. Tom, nothing to add here, just congratulating you on yet another great article.

    And, you know, the authorities must embrace the the ease of use and how open these newtworks are. After all, this guy [] can be found in Twitter in a blink. : )

  7. @Paul – couldn’t agree more

    @Ros – you should give Twitter a chance. It’s a great service, a much better medium than RSS for getting news, plus you can ask questions.

    @Bruno – thanks, very kind.

  8. @Ros – you should give Twitter a chance. It’s a great service, a much better medium than RSS for getting news, plus you can ask questions.

    The thing is, I like my news to come in chunks, rather than as a constant dripfeed. And there are very few things I need to know NOW!!!! So I find that a radio 4 bulletin once a day is sufficient.

    And if you meant more ‘personal’ news, well, I’m pretty happy never knowing the banal minutiae of their lives that people seem to think are worth twittering about.

  9. @Ros – fair enough different types of interaction work better for different people. I guess I’m more of a news junkie and mainstream media outlets don’t give me tech news…

  10. […] nature has helped enable an eruption of creativity, spawning a new economy in it’s wake; and how governments have failed to grasp that it’s the people that use the medium that need polici…. But as you might expect from such an illustrious bunch of people the panel managed to nail the […]

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