A little known internet safety green paper was the genesis of the Online Safety Bill. It was initiated by the Cameron government and published five years ago, with a focus on a voluntary code of practice and transparency requirements for social media. This would have been a relatively incremental step, a collaborative approach to addressing online issues.
This modest proposal went through a transfiguration into a white paper during the Theresa May administration and continued under Boris Johnson. The resulting Bill is exceedingly complex. It has the advantage of being targeted at a popular enemy, “Big Tech”, and has a popular cause, “protecting children”. Thus the proposals have received relatively little scrutiny.
But it is clear to any reader that the Bill reimagines the role of the state, the digital world and their relationship with the individual. It goes far beyond the earlier intentions.
The Bill obliges social media companies and search engines to protect users from a variety of harms. The platforms will have a duty to remove content that they “reasonably believe” could be illegal, well below the usual criminal standard of “beyond reasonable doubt”. They will also have duties in relation to “legal but harmful” speech, as defined by the Secretary of State – currently Nadine Dorries. The safety duties will be achieved by requiring platforms to profile users for age-appropriate content and monitor their speech, including in private communications. Meanwhile, Ofcom will be empowered to design codes of conduct and issue fines of up to 10 per cent of global revenue for non-compliance.
Taken together, the government is lowering the threshold for censorship, requiring invasive intrusion of user privacy and outsourcing law enforcement to tech companies. This is a deeply illiberal and unconservative Bill. It contradicts pretty much everything you would expect from a Conservative government.
The Conservatives insist they are champions of free speech, with new protections coming in the Bill of Rights and higher education legislation. They claim they want to take advantage of Brexit by reducing the regulatory burden and limiting the power of unaccountable regulatory agencies. Yet this will all be undone by ushering in a new online censorship regime — that would barely have passed muster under New Labour let alone be expected to come from the Conservatives.
It’s perhaps no surprise then that the ideas are not particularly popular among Conservatives. A whopping four-fifths (79 per cent) of Conservative members believe that anything that is legal to say in public should be legal to say online, according to a YouGov poll. The same poll found that three quarters (74 per cent) believe that free speech is important even if some people are offended. Meanwhile, a majority (51 per cent) do not trust Ofcom to be impartial.
The Bill, currently before Parliament, is raising significant red flags. Lord Frost, the former Brexit minister who has been called the “conscience of the Tory Party,” is the latest to add his voice. Frost warns that the Bill “panders to the view of the perennially offended” and says “a Conservative government should not be putting this view into law”. David Davis MP has said it “could end up being one of the most significant accidental infringements on free speech in modern times”.
This Bill feeds into the narrative, put forward by Prime Minister’s internal critics, that the government is betraying the party’s values. The government has borrowed and spent record amounts, broken the manifesto commitment to not raise taxes, and is barely scratching the surface on reforming public services or the regulatory state.
If that wasn’t enough, the government is introducing new laws, like the Online Safety Bill, that threaten free speech. This all raises a deep question: does the Conservative Party stand for anything?