This week, more information about the Government’s controversial Online Safety Bill filtered out into the public domain. Rather than being a wholesale rethink of the more news-friendly and damaging proposals around social media, it doubles down on the censorious and illiberal themes that seem riddle the proposed Bill.
For example, one of the new provisions will be that it will become an offence to create a “knowingly false communication”. This is a very concerning proposal because it is going to be an incredibly subjective clause that will be no doubt interpreted in various different ways. This is another step along the slippery slope of restricting free speech.
Now, I am not suggesting that this Government is creating some sort of thought police but that dystopian future is gradually getting closer, and this clause is far too open to the potential for abuse. After all, it is not that long ago that certain incorrect opinions about homosexuality were treated as absolute fact by government and the establishment.
Another problematic provision is the complete abandonment of any sensible measure of harm and the chilling affect this will have on free speech and sensible discourse on controversial or emotionally charged topics.
It has been trailed that the Bill will move what determines an offence away from a focus on what has actually been said to instead solely consider how people might “feel”. This idea of protection from challenging ideas or words is straight out of the illiberal safe space playbook that has infected universities and drives cancel culture. It will legitimise cancel culture and only encourage a listener’s veto by allowing people to simply claim emotional distress to shut down valid criticism and viewpoints. This would be incredibly unhealthy for free speech and political discourse in this country.
Another problem with this Bill is that it will try and strip people of anonymity online. This is a poor decision as anonymity on social media can be of vital importance.
Firstly, there many people for whom the sensitive nature of their jobs mean that they cannot post their true thoughts publicly but still wish to participate. Another, more important reason, is that certain accounts remain anonymous to avoid the potential repercussions of their actions – i.e. accounts calling out racism or whistleblowing on wrongdoing and worse.
We should not be trying to limit people’s legitimate access to online platforms. Moreover, it is horrendously naïve to believe that government mandating the removal of anonymity will stop online trolls from retaining the ability to create fake accounts or from posting online.
This is all going to lead to wasted time and effort – both in Parliament when this Bill is brought to the floor but also for the police and courts having to enforce this nonsense if it ever passes largely unchanged from what has been suggested in the media.
However, there is a need for better understanding and sensible policy towards online activity. There are some very real harms that are far better priorities for the Government to be tackling. For example, despite what some proponents of the current Bill are suggesting – the recent tragic murders of sitting MPs have not been caused by online trolls but appear to have been radicalisation from far-right and Islamist sources – something that the Government would be far better off focusing on.
Another key area that the Government should be considering is the dangerous proliferation of pro-suicide websites. More than 6,000 people died in the UK because of suicide last year. That is the equivalent of more than 16 full Boeing 747s worth of people. Yet, there are still websites out there that are glorifying suicide and telling people how to do it. This is a very real harm that the Government could and should be tackling and I would suggest should be a far higher priority.
There are very real threats and online harms that the Government must address. Introducing measures that will stifle legitimate free speech and expose whistle-blowers or campaigners to the world are not the answers.