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Against Tory tinkering

Bin the Online Safety Bill

Artillery Row

The twilight months of Boris Johnson as prime minister have unmoored the government’s political direction. Promising to act as a caretaker, Johnson’s “bucket list” final months in charge will see him taking to the skies in Tornado jets rather than instigating new policies. Much-debated bills have been put in political purgatory, and white paper proposals will have to wait until Tory turmoil is resolved and we are blessed with a new PM.

While this pause in legislation has frustrated much of the world of wonks, legislators and policy analysts — the gambling reform white paper being shelved for the fourth time, for example, has been met with exasperation — it has also provided an opportunity for several to cast another critical eye over bills that are moments from royal assent. 

Journalists will enjoy greater freedom of speech rights than other citizens

The chief target of this renewed period of delay has been the Online Safety Bill. Written up to prevent the spread of illegal material, protect children from harmful content, and limit “legal but harmful” material, the bill has faced a litany of amendments amid criticism over excessive overreach.

Like the net zero policies that have been championed by the outgoing prime minister, the Online Safety Bill is a piece of legislation that was introduced by Theresa May during the closing stages of her premiership. Promising a clean break from the indecision and delay that tormented May’s period in power, Johnson has instead spent much of his time in charge commandeering ceaseless revisions and amendments to policies that his predecessor had envisaged.

As he returns to his prior career as a light-hearted columnist, and picks up a few gigs on the after-dinner speaking circuit, Johnson will likely hear grumblings of regret running through his mind: “Why didn’t I listen when Lord Frost resigned last year? Why didn’t I push forward a new policy direction? Why did I stick to the same old Tory tinkering with dreadful laws instead of binning them and promoting new legislation?”

He will never again have the opportunity to answer those questions, but his successor must ensure they do not face the same internalised derision once their term comes to a close.

Tory tinkering must end. Countless amendments and revisions to the Online Safety Bill have left this hulking mass of unworkable regulation in a terrible state — all authoritarian meddling and arcane legislation. 

In March, it was reported that Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries had asked Microsoft “when are you getting rid of algorithms?” Since then, the tech giant has thankfully retained its algorithmic tech, but Dorries’ 255-page report has faced several changes. 

Once dubbed a “censor’s charter”, the bill has undergone some reforms due to the alarm caused in the tech industry by the government’s commitment to banning vaguely defined “legal but harmful” content. What will be targeted by this ban will now be the subject of further discussion in parliament. But this only solves a portion of the problem, because successive parliaments will have the power to change what they determine to be “legal but harmful”. It will no doubt be an area subject to mission creep by governments that cannot help but find new areas where censorship is needed.

The government conducted some further tinkering when it realised that the bill might criminalise journalism (which I will concede has crossed my mind as a legitimate policy proposal on a few occasions). Just a couple of weeks ago, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport announced “tougher protections for journalism” had been added to the proposed online safety laws. 

The Telegraph reported in March that yet more changes to the bill would mean that “any tech firms that remove journalists’ articles will have to notify the writer in advance, say why they are doing it, give them a right of appeal and leave it online until the dispute is resolved”. The amendment, tabled earlier this month, said it would “guard against the arbitrary removal of articles from journalists at recognised news outlets”, leaving us in a situation where journalists enjoy greater freedom of speech rights than citizens who have made better career choices. This is intolerably unfair. Everyone should have the same ability to speak according to their conscience.

This is only scratching the surface of the bill’s problems. Huge piles of red tape will fall on our innovative tech sector with risk assessments and transparency reports. Demands for proactive technology to hunt out and remove illegal content will curtail privacy, forcing companies to neglect customer experience. End-to-end encryption — the tech that allows us to speak to our friends and families without the government taking a peep — will be curtailed by investigative demands. The bill is a mess. 

During this delay, I’m sure that more problems with the mammoth proposal will come to light. Then the government will return to its reflexive response to failure: another round of tinkering, smoothing the edges, trimming the fat, inevitably piling on more problems.

Conservatives have fought an unwinnable war of editing the enemy

The answer to the tidal wave of issues that threaten to overwhelm ordinary citizens and the tech sector from the Online Safety Bill, is to cancel it entirely.

Yet the Conservatives have lost their courage and now seem intent on trying to polish the disasters they inherit from previous administrations. There are a few theories behind this cowardice, but my own is that the conservative universe for policymaking and the fashioning of new ideas has been steadily degraded in recent years. The Left looks after its own, attracting scholarships, grants and massive support networks for a nexus of policymaking and promotion, but the British Right has nothing even close to matching this. 

Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary and Minister for Women and Equalities who is currently championing herself as the radical break from the Tory establishment, spent her time in government incontinently tinkering. 

As an equalities minister — an area of policy that appears to have been established to scupper conservative ambitions at every turn — Truss has attempted to redefine the government’s equalities focus. 

In a speech titled “Fight For Fairness” in December 2020, Truss said she would focus on “individual dignity and humanity, not quotas and targets, or equality of outcome”, adding that the government’s new approach to equality will “focus fiercely on fixing geographic inequality, addressing the real problems people face in their everyday lives using evidence and data”.

Since the Equality Act (2010) was introduced, the equalities industry has poured incessant political and cultural pressure on basic conservative aims and principles. But instead of having the courage to fight this intellectual beast head on, Conservatives have fought an unwinnable war of redefining, tinkering and editing an enemy into a more congenial form. Focusing on outcome, not identity, is a welcome mentality, but putting a conservative twist on revolutionary leftist policy will not change its fundamental effects. 

Time and again, the Tories have opted to legislate themselves to death in a dizzying spiral of amendments rather than trashing terrible laws that they have inherited. If the next leader is to have any hope of success, they must put an end to this strategy of political fiddling and build up a great bonfire of failed legislation.

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