As published in the Spectator.
“Read the Bill”. That was the response I got from Nadine Dorries, the Secretary for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, when I warned of the danger her beloved Online Safety Bill poses to free speech.
Dorries, a firm supporter of Liz Truss’s bid for the Tory leadership, indicated on Thursday that Truss backs the Bill in its unamended state.
Numerous civil liberties organisations have campaigned against elements of the Bill from day one. And yet Dorries argues that the Bill will make free speech more secure, because somehow, she sees something they do not.
Granted, the Bill does not impose outright, sweeping bans on speech. But what the department and, evidently, the Secretary of State do not seem to understand is that the real danger lies with the subtle pressures on free speech that the Bill will impose.
I have made this point repeatedly, and it pains me that I am forced to do so again.
The Online Safety Bill imposes an onerous ‘duty of care’ on social media providers and obliges them to produce and enforce a policy to deal with ‘legal but harmful’ content. Dorries’s department has wrapped it up in arguments about ‘transparency’ but the pressures will still apply to the platform giants.
Inevitably, these companies will err on the side of censorship, for fear of being punished for not censoring enough.
Many of them are already predisposed towards policing controversial ideas, as anyone who has spent any time online over the past couple of years will know. Now, the situation looks set to get worse, as they are made to enforce this censorship more rigorously than ever.
Protections for freedom of expression in the Bill are welcome, but the provisions are vague and insufficient. The duty to ‘have regard to’ the importance of freedom of expression is far weaker than the duties with respect to ‘legal but harmful’ content, and will not be a robust safeguard against the kinds of censorship this Bill will encourage.
What’s more, these protections appear to be a half-hearted effort to mitigate the censorious effects of the Bill. They imply that other clauses in the Bill do indeed pose a risk to free speech. Once this Bill comes into effect, it will be those on the political right who pay the highest price. The left is the best at this kind of online gamesmanship, and the Bill’s proponents risk empowering them further.
Of course, we can all agree that some types of content should be banned. For example, I would make it an explicit criminal offence to share content encouraging kids to self-harm.
But rules like these should be enacted by primary legislation after proper debate in Parliament. Instead, the Bill largely hands the power to the Secretary of State to decide what he or she thinks should be allowed, subject only to the weakest oversight.
Nadine Dorries may see herself as a pristine champion of free speech (though I beg to differ), but who knows what her successors will be like? A Secretary of State of any party could flex their muscles using all the arbitrary powers this Bill will introduce.
The Bill is jam packed with unintended consequences that the Secretary of State does not appear to comprehend. It is unacceptable that such a huge piece of legislation is so poorly understood by those trying to railroad it through Parliament.
Indeed, this lack of respect for open debate has become a theme of the Bill. It was summed up by the Government’s attitude during the Second Reading of the Bill earlier this month. The 213 pages of dense and complex legislation were debated in the House of Commons for just 2 hours and 24 minutes. That is 40 seconds a page.
What’s more, the Government did not invite a single free-speech advocacy group to give evidence at the Committee Stage of the Bill. In effect, ministers have just bypassed discussion on the subject altogether.
Free speech has been stifled at every stage. Why should we expect anything to change if it is enacted?
The Bill needs serious work. Many Conservative MPs are worried about its unintended consequences. By definition, unintended consequences are difficult to prevent, but unquestionably the issue demands a great deal more debate in the chamber of the House of Commons than Dorries has been willing to allow. That is the place to establish the proper defences of free speech.
Nadine Dorries told me to read the Bill. But it’s not me that needs to take a long hard look at it.