The news was so good I didn’t believe it at first, like being told you’ve just won the lottery. A tweet appeared last night at about 7.15pm claiming the Online Safety Bill had been put on hold by the Government.
But it was true! The same journalist later wrote a longer piece for PoliticsHome explaining that the Bill had been held over until the Autumn, explaining why.
PoliticsHome understands that the Bill was removed from the Government’s agenda to make space for a motion of no confidence in the Government due to be put to the House on Monday.
And this wasn’t idle speculation, but a genuine scoop. Later, the BBC followed up, confirming the story.
Plans for new internet safety laws have been put on hold until a new Prime Minister is in place in the autumn.
The Online Safety Bill aims to lay down rules in law about how platforms should deal with harmful content.
It had been in its final stages and was to be discussed in Parliament next week, but will now be paused until MPs return from their summer break.
A Government source confirmed to the BBC that timetable pressures meant the bill is being rescheduled.
Shadow culture minister Alex Davies-Jones said the delay was “an absolutely devastating blow and another example of the Tories prioritising their own ideals over people’s safety online”.
Campaigners seeking changes to the existing regulations expressed concern at the delay.
No doubt some people are ‘concerned’, but my phone began to light up with WhatsApp messages saying “Boom!”, accompanied by wine glass emojis. I’ve been campaigning against this legislation since it was first mooted in April 2019. I wrote a cover story for the June edition of the Critic describing the Bill as a “censors’ charter” and, more recently, replied to a piece by Chris Philp, then the junior minister piloting the Bill through the Commons, in ConservativeHome. I debated the Bill with one of its supporters in front of a group of Conservative MPs in Committee Room 10 last month and last week I spoke about the Bill to the Association of Conservative Peers in the House of Lords. Only this week, the Free Speech Union created a template email for people to send to their MPs, pointing out the major shortcomings of the Bill and asking, at the very least, for it to be held over until a new Prime Minister is in place. On Monday I was urging Conservative MPs I know who oppose the Bill to ask for a delay for precisely the reason it has been delayed, but the message they were getting back from the whips is that the Government was determined to press ahead. Then, suddenly, the house of cards collapsed.
No doubt the intervention of Lord Frost, Sir Graham Brady and Steve Baker on Monday, pointing out that the Bill would be a gift to an incoming Labour Government, helped. Boris’s resignation helped, too, since it was his support for Nadine Dorries, the main architect of the Bill and its chief booster, that kept the show on the road. But I suspect the critical factor was the result in the first round of the Conservative leadership contest, announced at 5pm yesterday, with two of the remaining six candidates having expressed major reservations about the Bill – Suella Braverman and Kemi Badenoch (who I’m supporting). Given that one of them might end up as PM, it doesn’t make sense to rush the Bill through the Commons before the contest has been decided.
What if Rishi or Liz or Penny wins? Will the Bill be brought back in the Autumn? Maybe, but I doubt the most controversial bit – Clause 13, which includes the ‘legal but harmful’ stuff – will survive. And there’s now a decent chance that whoever wins, the Bill won’t be resurrected. The sensible thing would be to pull it completely and start again with a more modest piece of legislation designed to protect children from accessing pornography and content encouraging them to self-harm, which was the original reason for the Bill. All the stuff designed to protect adults from ‘psychological harm’ – we‘re grown-ups, after all, and capable of deciding for ourselves what content is likely to upset us – should be dropped entirely.
The Free Speech Union is only one of dozens of organisations that have been campaigning against this horrendous Bill. It’s been a broad coalition including Big Brother Watch, Index on Censorship, the Institute of Economic Affairs, the Adam Smith Institute, the Centre for Policy Studies, and many others. They should all take a bow today.