Artillery Row

Letting the blob go online

Why is the “Vote Leave Government” giving a Quango so much power over our online speech?

In the Online Harms White Paper, published in February, the Government said they want the UK to be “the best place to start and grow a digital business”. This fits in with one of the Prime Minister’s favourite lines that he wants “Gigabit broadband sprouting in every home”. But a recent paper published by the Free Speech Union suggests the Online Harms Bill could make the UK one of the worst places in the world to start a digital business – at least if it’s a business that relies on any kind of robust discussion.

Internet regulation isn’t something Germans are good at like making cars or brewing beer

The joint DCMS/Home Office White Paper says definitions of terms like “unacceptable content”, “disinformation”, and “harm” will be left for a future regulator to determine (the government favours Ofcom), but Dr. Radomir Tylecote, argues that this risks those terms being defined by partisan lobby groups leading to a heavily censored internet in the UK. If this seems like scaremongering, just consider how effective the lobby group Stonewall have been in re-defining legal definitions within British police forces to effectively change the law by stealth.

The document, published ahead of legislation in Parliament next year, reveals the Government has been looking to Germany’s approach for inspiration but “internet regulation” probably shouldn’t be placed into the same category as other things Germans are good at like making cars or brewing beer. The fact that Vladamir Putin, Belarusian leader President Lukashenko and Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela have all cited Germany’s law – “NetzDG” – as inspiration for their own internet censorship rules, should make the Home Office think twice about endorsing Berlin’s legislation.

NetDG, a law which came into full force in 2018, has been criticised by Human Rights Watch who say it “turns internet companies into censors”. Germany’s biggest newspaper, Bild, has also called for it to be scrapped. In response to the legislation Facebook has hired over 1,000 German-language moderators to review posts flagged by users in ‘deletion centres’ in Berlin and Essen. Tylecote says the UK bill, if passed, risks the regulator forcing private companies to remove speech that is legal in order to prevent it causing “harm”. It also turns over the role of – let’s not be coy here – doing the actual censoring to a company whose staff have the values Facebook employees have already notoriously shown themselves to have. Possibly the only thing worse than censorship will be censorship by these guys. They have a track record. Though for how much longer you’ll be able to see that online remains to be seen.

The White Paper also says that the future regulator should make “content which has been disputed by reputable fact-checking services less visible to users” and make companies promote “authoritative news sources”. The fact that YouTube, Facebook and Twitter have all censored views on Covid that contradict WHO advice  – but have not censored barmy conspiracy theories in the opposite direction  –  suggests there will be little push-back from the big tech giants when asked to sideline alternative viewpoints. Earlier this year YouTube apologised for removing a video uploaded by the UnHerd website which featured Professor Karol Sikora, the former director of the WHO Cancer Programme and Dean of Medicine at the University of Buckingham after he said coronavirus could ‘burn out’ before a vaccine is found.

We’ve discovered arms-length “independent” bodies like the Electoral Commission are accountable to nobody

But the fact that the WHO is seen as an authoritative source highlights another potential problem, if you consider how close Dr Ghebreyesus, the Director-General of the WHO, is to President Xi of China. The WHO, under influence from the CCP, does not recognise Taiwan and won’t share data with it. Is the WHO an “authoritative news source” when it comes to Taiwan? Like all future online information, normal punters need not answer – our future regulator will be deciding that for itself.

Perhaps in future the Guardian newspaper will be ruled “authoritative” but internet companies would be told not to allow Mail Online? This is basically already happening in the US but most people who voted for the Conservatives would expect them to be against it, not imposing legislation that allowed it to happen. Are we so sure that a powerful Quango, probably left-leaning, would refrain from using their influence to push an agenda? Just recall how on one of the final days before the EU elections Gordon Brown alleged financial impropriety at the Brexit Party which led to the Electoral Commission raiding the offices of Nigel Farage in front of tipped-off TV cameras.

The lesson of the past few years when it comes to arms-length “independent” bodies like the Electoral Commission is that they are accountable to nobody. So why is this “Vote Leave Government,” which suffered personally from endless investigations from the electoral regulator in particular, trying to expand the powers of a Quango? Perhaps this is what political theorist Ben Woodfinden meant when he told The Critic podcast this week that Conservative Parties are good at winning elections but don’t have the stomach to fight a “war on woke”? In this case the peculiar thing is that it’s Priti Patel who’s looking to give her enemies weapons they don’t yet have. This is a curiously unstrategic government.

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