The Telegraph – The Online Safety Bill makes a mockery of free speech

Big Brother Watch Team / March 18, 2022

The Government’s Online Safety Bill has been described as a “world-first”, and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has even boasted that it is leading “a global coalition of countries all taking co-ordinated steps” on internet regulations. But if other countries develop laws anything like this censor’s charter, internet freedom as we know it will be a thing of the past.

The new Bill is a departure from Britain’s carefully balanced right to free speech, instead giving state-backing to social media companies’ distinctly San-Fran, restrictive content policies where they relate to the Government’s “priority harms”. The priority harms are whatever the Secretary of State wants them to be and can target either lawful or unlawful speech.

We should be incredibly cautious about deferring to Americanised terms of service over domestic speech laws. Tech companies’ rules have seen thousands of people censored, suspended and banned for their views on sex and gender, politics, pandemic policies, and for making anodyne jokes. Notably, they even led to Donald Trump being banned from social media whilst serving as President. The Bill creates a legal requirement that these foreign terms and conditions are upheld “consistently”. Public outrage at excessive speech interventionism has been, up to now, directed solely at Big Tech, but under these new laws the British Government will be held squarely to blame too.

The minister in charge of the Bill knows only too well how censorious the tech companies can be. In an experiment we recently conducted, Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries’ own controversial comments in which she (I think, only half) jokingly threatened to nail a journalists’ balls to the floor in 2013 were banned from Facebook when we posted them from a dummy account. We did the same experiment with Boris Johnson’s controversial comments likening women in burkas to letterboxes, and Angela Rayner’s recent comments on shooting terrorists – all were swiftly censored on the platform. Dorries says that the Bill will require the companies to offer an appeals process – but they already do. And when we appealed the take-downs in our experiment, the censorship decisions were upheld.

We can expect much more eradication of controversial speech under Dorries’ Bill. The new law creates a whole new category of speech – “legal but harmful” – to be surveilled by tech companies and regulated by the state. Dorries expects us to be reassured that the types of speech that will qualify as “legal but harmful” will be set out in statutory instruments – but that’s unlikely to reassure anyone who has paid attention to the avalanche of authoritarian statutory instruments flying through parliament with little scrutiny over the past two years.

This Government could and should have taken the opportunity with this Bill to focus on making sure that people are protected from crime online, and that predators, stalkers, terrorists and racist abusers are not just suspended by social media companies but actually face the full force of the law. Everyone agrees that if something is illegal offline, it must be illegal online too.

But instead, the real change under this new law is the invention of a complex new bureaucracy whereby things that are perfectly lawful to say offline will be strictly regulated online – for our own “safety”, of course.

The Online Safety Bill, true to its title, reeks of safetyism. Liberal free speech values are fast becoming relics of our best traditions, left behind in the wake of safety fundamentalism that even encapsulates emotional safety. Indeed, the Bill creates new communications offences for speech that may cause “psychological harm”. There is no clinical definition here, and I have a feeling that in the Twittersphere this threshold will be interpreted very liberally.

In a piece for this paper, Dorries likened this monstrous speech bureaucracy to the requirement of seatbelts, as though suppressing lawful speech is life-saving. Well, strap in and buckle up – Dorries’ brave new internet will be quite a ride.

Silkie Carlo,

Big Brother Watch Director

The Telegraph – The Online Safety Bill makes a mockery of free speech