From time to time, the British parliament produces one egregious piece of bad legislation that stands out, for its innumerable demerits, from the generality of poorly drafted and unnecessary laws that are its routine output. The Dangerous Dogs Act (1991) was widely acknowledged as an example of legislative hubris and incompetence produced following a tabloid moral panic. Now, however, the Online Safety Bill offers the prospect of an overreaching, philosophically inarticulate, contradictory and flawed law, in comparison with which the Dangerous Dogs Act will look like Magna Carta.
The Online Safety Bill is the Dangerous Dogs Act gone cyber. Its effect on freedom of speech, already heavily beleaguered, could be catastrophic. It is astonishing that, while the rest of the world is shaking its head in disbelief at the zombie-like parroting by Russian citizens, deprived of access to uncensored information, of Vladimir Putin’s ludicrous propaganda, a British government should be taking an axe to the roots of free expression and exchange of information in the United Kingdom.
The government has taken so long a back-swing before addressing the issue of harmful content online that the proposed legislation has accumulated innumerable additional purposes and ambitions, as interest groups have piled onto the bandwagon. Even at this preliminary stage, it is already a complete dog’s dinner.
What began as a laudable attempt to ensure tech giants take responsibility for the material appearing on their sites has turned into a disaster. By introducing in law the concept of legal but harmful speech and comment it will be in the interests of big tech to exercise maximum caution, to avoid any risk of legal action or intervention by the regulator.
The attitude will be “if in doubt” unpublish, block, ban. The tech platforms will have the perfect excuse, gifted to them by the government, to suppress commentary and reporting deemed controversial or difficult. They’ll apply this to large publishers too, who have broadly supported the attempts to cut big tech down to size. Now, publishers are about to find out the conditions have been created for tech firms to target the more controversial coverage on their sites or social media feeds, thus reducing exposure, traffic and revenue. Without realising it, the government is helping the tech giants do further damage to the media industry they have already almost wrecked.
If challenged for suppressing free speech the tech firms can justifiably point to the Online Safety Bill and say they are only doing what is required by law. This is why the bill is now being renamed by critics as the Online Censorship Bill.
The cabinet minister responsible for this appalling mess is the Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries. When challenged this week about the bill by The Spectator editor Fraser Nelson, Dorries produced a response of such wrongheaded vapidity and ignorance that it looked as though she does not understand her own bill.
Does her boss, the man who thought it a wizard wheeze to appoint Dorries, understand what the bill does? Has the Prime Minister, a journalist, even read it?
When discussions on such legislation began four years ago, there was much valid talk of “curbing big tech”. This legislation, in contrast, in the words of civil liberties organisations, gives “state backing to big tech censorship on a scale that we have never seen before”.
To repeat, the key point is this. Nervous corporate lawyers in big tech firms will advise owners of social media platforms to err on the side of safety and remove content, something that censorship-addicted social media will be only too glad to do.
For censors today, such “harms” range from refusing to accept that a woman has a cervix, to quoting from the Bible or Shakespeare. The ever-widening definition of “hate speech” means every opinion that falls short of contemporary fashionable orthodoxy — notably women’s concerns — could be banned.
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Even search engines, despite not being in the category of “user-to-user services”, will come within the scope of this law. Its attack on “legal but harmful content” is an extension into the cyber realm of the police obsession with recording “non-crime hate incidents”. Giving Ofcom powers to impose penalties of £18m or 10 per cent of annual global turnover, whichever is higher, creates an intrusive online nightmare for which role Ofcom is demanding an extra £44m next year and 300 extra staff. So much for deregulatory Britain. It also demonstrates the extra-territorial outreach of the bill.
Threatening senior managers with sentences of up to two years’ imprisonment is a recipe for crippling social media and reducing them to bland exchanges about the weather (provided they do not stray into the controversial area of climate). In business terms, the law would stifle start-ups and overwhelm small businesses with extra costs. Defenders of free speech have also pointed out this vaguely-worded Bill would license Nick Clegg, president of Global Affairs at Facebook, to ban what he deems harmful even if it’s legal. As David Davis MP recently asked: “Do you want Nick Clegg to be the supreme censor of what you write online?”
Social media moguls have the power to edit the news feeds of billions of people. Incredibly, a British government is ordering such grandees not to restore freedom of speech, but to tighten the censorship they are already exercising.
It seems likely the Online Censorship Bill in Britain will principally target conservatives because big tech is generally anti-conservative, but this could spread and should worry anyone who cares about liberty and free expression.
Have the Tories considered how this already abusive and anti-democratic legislation it is seeking to pass could be used by a successor government of another party? It is extraordinary to see the party of Churchill actively engineering the conditions for a clamping down on the free speech of ordinary Britons and handing over their hard-won rights of free expression to foreign Big Tech oligarchs. That, however, is what a Conservative government is proposing to do.
The context in which the bill has been drafted is an ideological climate already more hostile to freedom of expression than the Western world has experienced in the modern era.
Look at what happened this week when Elon Musk announced he had acquired Twitter and expressed the ambition to restore free speech on that platform. This development was greeted throughout the social media and international government establishments as an apocalyptic catastrophe. This panic-stricken reaction instructively revealed the extent to which true freedom of expression has become anathema to those best positioned to suppress it. Quite unselfconsciously, the gatekeepers on social media and in government competed to denounce the menace of free speech on even one outlet. It was a mirror-image reversal of what would have been the response 20 years ago to any attempt to curb freedom of expression and impose censorship.
That is how far we have regressed. Not only did the European Union threaten Musk with total exclusion from the European market, but the British government — to the stupefaction of a broad range of American commentators — uttered similar menaces regarding draconian fines. Much of the Western political establishment appears opposed to free speech.
Now, the British government and Boris Johnson propose to go one step further. The Online Safety Bill, or the Online Censorship Bill, is a sprawling law and defective of purpose. Parliamentarians must do all they can to halt this threat to freedom of expression.