Ahead of the full and final publication of the Online Safety Bill tomorrow, the Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries has been on a charm offensive, trying to promote the legislation as something that will be good for free expression online.
The idea that the Online Safety Bill could protect freedom of speech is doublespeak of the highest order. The Bill is quickly becoming known as the Censor’s Charter and for good reason.
The state deputising Silicon Valley to act as new online speech police and the deliberate targeting of free expression which is deemed to be “harmful” are measures which rip up the rule book when it comes to traditional free speech standards.
Yet according to a piece in Conservative Home, written by the Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries this week, the Bill will somehow help ameliorate the increasingly censorious online environment. According to Dorries:
“Companies will only be required to remove ‘legal but harmful’ content if it is already banned in their own terms and conditions.”
It is the equivalent of giving someone a water pistol to put out a fire
This is hardly a relief. Last week Big Brother Watch published research demonstrating the sheerly calamitous nature of this approach. In a social media experiment, we set up 3 dummy Facebook accounts which posted politicians’ previous statements. In the course of our research we found that previous comments from the Prime Minister, Labour Deputy Leader Angela Rayner and the words of Nadine Dorries herself, were censored.
In each case, these politicians’ words were unpleasant and were roundly condemned but each statement was lawful. The research showed that Silicon Valley’s terms do not match up to traditional free speech standards. Further, if our politicians’ words are not safe online, nobody’s words are.
According to the Secretary of State our research was a “a neat trick” but she argued that we didn’t realise “the point they [sic] were actually demonstrating” because Big Tech censorship is happening already. On this latter point, she is not wrong. However, what she failed to acknowledge is that her Bill is about to entrench these problems by making these censorious terms and conditions (which resulted in the censorship of her own words) state-backed.
Dorries insists the legislation will include free speech safeguards but in the draft Bill, these were set out as a duty on platforms to “have regard” for freedom of speech. If this is the counterweight to the creation of this monstrous censor’s charter then it is the equivalent of giving someone a water pistol to put out a fire.
If the Bill does nothing to undermine free speech why are these special protections necessary?
There is little doubt that when Facebook suppressed the work of academics who questioned the efficacy of face masks during the height of the pandemic, the platform had “regard” for freedom of expression. Similarly, when Twitter censor users for listing statistics about male violence against women under its distorted “hate speech” policies, they will defend their due “regard” for freedom of expression.
This is a meaningless assurance not worth the paper it is written on. In any event, once weighed against platforms’ considerably more substantial duties to censor, it is likely that this so-called safeguard would be ignored.
The Secretary of State also says that the Bill will create carve outs to protect journalists and politicians’ speech. This begs the crucial question — if the Bill does nothing to undermine free speech why are these special protections necessary? The reality is that this legislation will cause collateral damage to free speech online and will create a more censorious environment in our public squares. There is no scenario where this won’t be felt by politicians and journalists too.
Many conservative politicians and commentators are concerned that this Bill makes Nick Clegg one of the most powerful people on the internet and they are right. Entrenching Big Tech’s censoriousness and making it harder for new competitors to emerge are hallmarks of this legislation.
It is not too late for Conservative MPs to talk DCMS down from this free speech disaster. They should start by calling on the Secretary of State to remove measures which specifically target free expression. Anything less and Big Tech censorship will be here to stay, with our Government’s blessing.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe