The Telegraph – Britain’s new Censor’s Charter makes free speech on Twitter impossible

Big Brother Watch Team / May 3, 2022

By Silkie Carlo, Director of Big Brother Watch. Originally published in the Sunday Telegraph.


In a speech on the future of the internet this week, Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries proudly asserted that “we’re at a turning point in the digital age” – and she is right. It is a turning point between internet freedom and internet censorship.

The Government wants to make Britain the “safest” place in the world to go online – a superlative that is more chilling than reassuring when it comes to speech control. The two forces of free market liberalism and overbearing state regulation are about to collide – but I don’t think many people expected a Conservative government to be at the helm of this collision.

Billionaire Elon Musk’s attempt to wrestle back the digital public square from Silicon Valley’s culture of brand-driven censoriousness and reinvigorate free expression could be a serious investment in freedom online and should be celebrated by all of us who still value the right to free speech. This side project to manufacturing environmentally-friendly cars, reigniting space exploration and possibly terraforming Mars should make Musk an entrepreneurial icon for Thatcherites and Johnsonians alike. But he’s about to meet head on with the Conservatives’ Online Safety Bill, better described as a Censor’s Charter, which could seriously hamper his $44bn investment in Twitter.

From the little that Musk has said about his free speech mission for the platform, it seems that he more or less wants to pursue a rule of law approach consistent with human rights standards. “By ‘free speech’”, he tweeted this week, “I simply mean that which matches the law. I am against censorship that goes far beyond the law.” This sounds like a sensible and democratic approach, and if the Online Safety Bill simply made sure the rule of law was upheld online, it would be uncontroversial.

Instead, Nadine Dorries’ Bill poses one of the most serious threats to free expression of any law in living memory. That is because it invokes a two-tier speech system, where completely legal speech that is lawful to say in parliament or the pub cannot be posted online without being regulated or censored under a new bureaucratic system overseen by Ofcom if it “risks” causing “psychological harm”.

Whether Musk will be able to realise his mission for a free speech platform in the UK looks to be in serious doubt.For him to protect Twitter users from “harm” requires deference not to primary legislation or objective legal standards, but to the whims of ministers. There is no statutory definition of “harm” in the new Bill. The Secretary of State of the day can decide what categories of lawful speech qualify as “harmful” without limitation.

One need not spend long thinking about how such a power would have been wielded over the past two years. Online censorship, often under pressure from governments, rocketed during the pandemic. In a recent example, Twitter deleted the account of Oxford Professor of Evidence-Based Medicine, Carl Heneghan, for sharing an article about a study he was involved in on Covid deaths. It is worth reading that sentence twice.

His account was reinstated after a public backlash, but the removal may well have been consistent with Twitter’s policies on censoring posts that contradict the views of public health authorities such as WHO. It’s not clear that Musk’s own tweets on Covid would survive that ridiculous test. No doubt his public standing has given him some insulation against the forces of censorship so far, but not for long.

Under the Online Safety Bill, tech companies will have a legal obligation to robustly uphold their censorship policies in every corner of their platforms – despite the fact that they result in censorship that goes far beyond UK law. It is a remarkable contradiction.

Indeed, Johnson’s government is full of contradictions when it comes to freedom of expression. They have harnessed the culture war over free speech, tapping into widespread concerns over our declining culture of free speech and even legislated to promote free expression in academia. But the censoriousness reserved for the internet gives one the sense that this is weather-vane policy-making without an intellectual basis.

Accordingly, Conservative ministers have publicly described anything from Jimmy Carr’s controversial jokes to videos of migrant journeys as “harmful” content that should be banished from the internet. Labour leaders are guilty of much the same – in the Second Reading of the Bill last week, Shadow Culture Secretary Lucy Powell name-checked “climate change denial”, poor body image and “incels” among legal harms requiring online suppression. Online censorship untethered to the law is a very open-ended project.

Musk’s Twitter takeover led to an outpouring of neuroticism about the prospects of reduced censorship from many in the commentary class and the privileged, pro-censorship left. But it’s the Online Safety Bill that should provoke outrage – not Musk’s general support for free speech, which on any sensible reading is a starting point for platform management rather than a conclusion. Once in force, and yet more academics are being censored for wrongthink, the new law will certainly cause controversy and outrage. But those to blame will no longer be only Silicon Valley’s tech execs – it will be our own government.