The Online Safety Bill, a legislative casserole of contradictory ingredients that has been on the parliamentary back burner since May 2021, has been amended in the hope of making it more palatable to MPs when it returns to the Commons next week. The reality is that no amount of tweaking can make this sprawling, catch-all instrument of Big Brother censorship compatible with a free society.
The initial pretext for this legislative initiative was to protect children from harm online – a much-needed intervention with which no reasonable person could take issue. However, the increasingly distorted nature of UK legislation means that undisciplined amendments ranging far from a statute’s declared purpose have become commonplace. From the reign of Edward III to that of Elizabeth II, it was generally the case that, if the title of a statute defined it as regulating imports, its contents would deal with that topic. Today, however, a Bill relating to white fish regulations is quite likely to be hijacked by extreme climate or abortion activists determined to intrude their preoccupations into the proposed statute.
In the case of the Online Safety Bill, the overreach has not been imposed by parliamentarians so much as by the Government. From the outset, it was a wide-ranging, incoherent mess, as ministers tried to pile everything, including the kitchen sink, into this unwieldy draft statute. There was no excuse for this. Drafting any legislation relating to children demands meticulous caution, to defend against the Law of Unintended Consequences. When child-related law also involves online technology, changing with bewildering rapidity and requiring highly specialist knowledge to legislate effectively, it is obvious that legislators must focus exclusively on the task of achieving watertight child protection.
That is what the Government ought to have concentrated on: child protection, pure and simple. Instead, it chose to attempt to tackle, within the same legislation, wider-ranging issues of Big Tech responsibilities and obligations. There is need for such legislation too, but in a discrete statute dealing comprehensively with that monolithic challenge. But where the Online Safety Bill became not only a paradigm of legislative incompetence but also a serious threat to freedom of speech was in its Draconian mandating of social media platforms to block “legal but harmful speech”.
This was the translation onto the internet of our politicised police forces’ pursuit of “non-crime hate incidents”. Nobody suggests a crime has been committed, but the police harass their victims as if it had. The thinking clearly is: “Unfortunately, this is not a crime – yet – but our woke prejudices motivate us to investigate and log it as if it were.” Transferred online, it would impose an obligation on social media platforms – one of which has already cancelled a president of the United States – to censor non-woke content.
We may be sure those platforms would joyously embrace such an obligation. The catch-all label “legal but harmful” would enable them to close down virtually all conservative content online, while pleading the legal obligation to do so, much as politicians used to justify every oppressive aggression against our liberties or interests as being required for compliance with EU regulations. In its original incarnation, the Online Safety Bill was the biggest and most far-reaching encroachment upon freedom of expression in the Western world.
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Last June, the IEA published a briefing paper by Matthew Lesh and Victoria Hewson, entitled “An Unsafe Bill: How the Online Safety Bill threatens free speech, innovation and privacy”. The title is a reminder that the Bill also represents a threat to innovation, potentially hobbling Britain competitively. But the threat to free speech is the most reprehensible feature of this legislation. The authors pointed out that the Bill’s impact assessment “refers to the reduction in ‘harmful content such as misinformation’ as a benefit of the legislation, confirming the intention to control speech that the government considers legal but harmful”.
The authors stated that “Supporters of including ‘legal but harmful’ speech in the legislation have suggested it could extend to ‘Covid disinformation’ and ‘climate change denial’,” citing shadow culture secretary Lucy Powell as complaining that, as it stood, the Bill would allow “incels” and “climate deniers” to “slip through the net”. It is instructive to learn that the Opposition views this legislation as a net to entangle people who voice opinions of which it disapproves,even in matters of public policy debate.
That, for politicians of all stripes, is the real purpose of this legislation. What has “climate denial” or “misogyny” to do with protection of children online? As for banning misogyny, how would that work when the “trans” online lynch mob hounds “gender critical” women? But the menace is not just from governments: consider how woke platforms would exploit this restrictive law to do what they want to do anyway and reduce internet spaces to the same echo chamber represented by the BBC and mainstream media.
The crucial question to be asked is: why is a law that could have been drafted by Xi Jinping being imposed on the country by a Conservative government? What has happened to the Conservative Party? Is there anything, anywhere, that the pro-mass immigration, pro-online censorship Conservative Party actually wants to conserve?
Some Tories must have uttered noises of discontent, since the censorship of “legal but harmful” speech online is being removed from the Bill before it returns to the Commons next week. That has provoked denunciations from Lucy Powell, who said the removal of the anti-free speech provisions gave a “free pass to abusers and takes the public for a ride”. How, precisely, does restoring free speech online take the public for a ride? Answers on a grain of rice…
It remains to be seen whether this partial improvement to the legislation will survive the final stages of parliamentary scrutiny; but the text of the draft law is not the chief concern. What is more worrying is the mentality of those who drafted it, for they will still be around, seeking other channels to advance their woke agenda and smother our fast-diminishing right to freedom of expression. The Dangerous Blogs Act is just the latest overreach by the woke establishment, its incoherence failing to conceal its malevolent intent. Its promoters are not people who take No for an answer. They will be back.
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