We Have Ways of Making You… Not Talk

In my Spectator column this week I’ve written about the Online Safety Bill, the latest version of which was published today. For those not up to speed, the aim of the Bill (in the words of Nadine Dorries) is “to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online”, i.e., turn the internet into a safe space.

Should you be concerned about it? Yes, obviously, but perhaps not for the reasons you think. The real issue with the Bill is not that it will make the big social media companies remove posts that are currently permissible – although it will, since the Government is going to force them to take down what it calls “legal but harmful” content, so stuff you’re able to say offline will become prohibited online. No, the bigger problem is that it doesn’t do nearly enough to force YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and the rest not to wield their red pens. It’s a missed opportunity.

Many of my fellow free speech warriors see this Bill as an attempt by po-faced Lord Chamberlain-types to rein in the libertarian excesses of the worldwide web – and Conservative MPs often frame it in this way, too, believing the public wants them to ‘get tough’ with out-of-control social media giants.

But the days when Twitter described itself as “the free speech wing of the free speech party” are long gone. Facebook removed 26.9 million pieces of content for violating its “community standards” on “hate speech” in the last quarter of 2020, 17 times as many as the 1.6 million instances of ‘hate speech’ it deleted in the last quarter of 2017. The real problem with this bill is that it doesn’t do enough to check the already rampant censoriousness of Big Tech. Twitter is more like the authoritarian wing of the Democratic party.

The bill contains little to stop these companies pledging to remove scads of “legal but harmful” content in their terms and conditions – as they do at present – save for some wishy-washy provisions about the need to “take into account” freedom of expression when deciding whether to remove “content of democratic importance” and “journalistic content” and to “have regard” for free speech. To understand how ineffective these clauses are likely to be, think of the different legal duties included in the bill as being like football teams. The duty to remove “content that is harmful to adults” is Manchester City. The need to “take into account” and “have regard” for freedom of expression is Plymouth Argyle.

Worth reading in full.

Stop Press: Jennifer Powers, the Legislative Affairs Director of the Free Speech Union, has written a good piece for UnHerd about the way the Online Safety Bill will be used to muzzle feminists defending sex-based women’s rights.

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August 2022
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