At the weekend, the Labour Party announced their proposal to “stamp out ” anti-vaccine opinions online. The policy would involve penalising online platforms that allow so-called “anti-vax” content on their website, effectively making such content prohibited on major online platforms used by billions of people to communicate across the world. In the midst of the pandemic, this policy may seem well-intentioned to many. Yet Labour’s policy would have unintended consequences and wider implications for freedom of expression, effectively nominating the Government as the ultimate arbiter of truth online and narrowing the space for expression and dissent.
Under Labour’s plans, the refereeing of these rules would be outsourced to Silicon Valley tech platforms themselves and the overworked staff who moderate them. Far from empowering platform users online, this would put greater emphasis still on social media companies’ roles as privatised judges and juries over citizens’ speech. And the breadth of opinions expressed on the topic of vaccinations could result in individual users who express even basic concerns or misunderstandings being swept up in this state-mandated censorship.
Much like the Government’s policy proposals to eradicate ‘online harms’, there is a dangerous lack of definition in Labour’s proposal. Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth told Sophy Ridge on Sunday that anti-vaccine “nonsense” that erodes trust in the vaccine must be stamped out, although people should be able to “ask questions” about how the vaccine will affect them. There are no clear lines when politicians seek to censor lawful expression, but rather an ideological clamour dangerously prone to mission creep.
It’s alarming that freedom of expression and open discourse has been so belittled in modern British politics. It is a feature, not a flaw, of modern liberal democracies that online spaces allow ideas and opinions, in all their messiness and imperfection, to be instantly shared, scrutinised and challenged – yet politicians are increasingly obsessed with control, correction and elimination of uncomfortable views.
A ban of this kind would create a dichotomy between what can legally and permissibly be said in public offline and what can be said online, setting a complicated precedent for how free expression is governed not only today but for the future, and not only in the UK but overseas. What’s more, it’s unlikely to even have the intended effect. There could be no more likely way to erode public trust in a vaccine than for the state to seek to control the discourse around it.
Censorship of lawful expression and opinions because they are deemed misleading is a dangerous path and one politicians should tread carefully.
In a healthy, democratic and equal marketplace of ideas, truth and reason win. It is more effective, let alone more liberal, to surface and challenge mistruths than to silence them.
Over the last 8 months, the Government has sacrificed many of our basic rights and freedoms on the altar of public health. The authoritarian swing of this Government is unlike any seen in our history. Our democracy truly is in peril when the official Opposition is barely even attempting to harness this authoritarianism – whether on lockdowns, unlawful prosecutions, emergency laws, the protest ban, torture, police spy crimes, or online censorship – but is actually agitating for the quicker imposition of more draconian laws.
The role of rights groups is now vital. But sadly, too many were silent on Labour’s threat of censorship this weekend.
We’re now preparing briefings and reports on freedom of expression online and without hesitation we’ll fight the excesses of the online harms legislation that is now so near on the horizon.
If you can support our work, please do join us today and fight for a freer future.