The price of free speech (does anyone in the UK Government have a sense of humour?)

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I don’t normally engage in political comment on this site, but this is tech-related political comment…

Recently, there has been a lot of media coverage about how Google is allowing search results to be censored on it’s Chinese search portal and whether or not this co-operation with the Chinese authorities is the right thing to do – but did you know that the UK Government is engaging in a form of Internet censorship of its own (albeit on a much smaller scale)?

Late this afternoon, I needed a laugh, so I visited Ian Everleigh’s deeply satirical and very funny New Highway Code, only to find that he had been asked to take it down by the UK Government Cabinet Office (who were upset because it scored higher on search results than the real Highway Code). How pathetic, that the authorities feel so threatened by something that was obviously sarcastic (and extremely popular with 45,000 hits on the site in 12 months). In the author’s own words:

“Mimicking the familiar style of The Highway Code, its aim was to draw attention to the many appalling habits which cause inconvenience and even danger every day on the UK’s roads.”

I’d say that was a good thing. Clearly the people at the Cabinet Office don’t understand sarcasm. Thankfully, there is a copy of the site in the Internet wayback machine (sadly without the graphics), and Bruno Bozzetto’s yes and no dyseducational [sic] road movie is a very funny flash animation which examines driving habits in the same vein.

Back in 2004, Thomas Scott, the author of the HM Department of Vague Paranoia Preparing for Emergencies site (as well as lots of parodies that can be found via his site, some of which have even appeared on television), was asked to take the Preparing for Emergencies site down as people might confuse it with the real Cabinet Office Preparing for Emergencies site. Thankfully he refused and the BBC reported that the Government is unlikely to take further action (presumably because it could cost them a lot of money and make them look stupid in court) but I’m not sure that I would have the courage or conviction to stand up to them if they started pressuring me to remove a web site.

It only costs a few pounds to register similar domain names to official sites (and let’s face it, the government wastes enough of taxpayers’ money, a few quid on domain names won’t hurt much). It’s their own fault if the version of a domain is available when the version is taken.

Thankfully, no one has yet taken down Ian Vince’s Department of Social Scrutiny site, although he does unfortunately have to provide a legal disclaimer to say that it’s a joke.

If you live in the UK (or even if you don’t and you check out the real UK Government sites), you’ll realise that these sites may be funny, but they are obviously uncomfortably close to the truth for the powers that be.

To the civil servants of the UK Government – especially the Cabinet Office, who claim to be “at the centre of Government, coordinating policy and strategy across government departments” – is your job really so dull that you’ve lost your sense of humour? It might be interesting to note that satire is defined in a glossary of literary terms as “a manner of writing that mixes a critical attitude with wit and humor [sic] in an effort to improve mankind…”.

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