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 Рone 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 Рrather than something that they have grown up with Рand while that is true it will be seen through the glasses of those that see it as something that is special and different Рjust 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.