As published by The Mail on Sunday:
Do you want Nick Clegg to be the supreme censor of what you write online? Because that could be the accidental effect of the Government’s new Online Safety Bill.
It could make the former Deputy Prime Minister – now a multi-million-dollar-a-year Facebook executive – the overall arbiter of whether your views are acceptable or ‘legal but harmful’, and thereby subject to being censored.
Protecting people when online is undoubtedly a major issue, one defining this era of politics.
The generation heading into workplaces and higher education today is one of the first that has grown up entirely online.
It is abundantly clear that we must address the challenges of the internet.
Anyone who has spent just ten minutes online will know of the problems that need to be tackled.
Given the stakes are so high, it is vital we get the big calls right.
Comments in response to my tweets, for example, can range from the sanctimonious to the sociopathic. I tend not to read them.
Some colleagues have it much worse, however, especially female MPs and those from ethnic minorities.
For some, the problem is so great and so traumatic that they have been forced to quit their careers.
The Online Safety Bill, which the Government will introduce into Parliament in the coming weeks, will not fix that. But it will have potentially disastrous results.
The Government plan is to force platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Instagram to remove content that is not illegal, but is deemed harmful all the same.
Government press releases talk of suppressing material which encourages suicide, promotes eating disorders or exposes children to pornography.
Worthy aims. No one would argue that we should not be tackling these challenges.
But the Bill also gives unelected Silicon Valley tech giants – headed up by people like Nick Clegg – the power to decide exactly what content crosses the line between safe and harmful.
The implications for free speech are potentially disastrous. Do we really want 20-something whizzkids sitting in a plush Californian office 5,000 miles away to be deciding whether a comedy routine from the 1970s crosses that line?
Or deciding whether those questioning the consensus on Covid policy are raising concerns or pushing disinformation?
Or whether a public figure writing about transgender issues has crossed into hate speech?
These are matters of nuance that we cannot outsource to big tech zealots and their fashionable opinions.
What could be deemed ‘harmful’ for one set of users might be completely fine for another.
Yet both can co-exist on the same platform – and should be allowed to do so.
Are we really suggesting that we erect digital Berlin Walls to prevent one section of society from seeing something that might – only might – upset them?
If it is not careful, Downing Street risks introducing a Government-sponsored online cancel culture by the back door.
The incentives are perverse. There is nothing in the Bill to punish companies for erring on the side of suppression, of taking an overly strict view of harmful content. Yet for platforms found to be hosting legal but harmful content, the proposed penalties are huge.
The risk is obvious – that companies will take an extremely cautious approach in deciding what content can remain online. And free speech will be the casualty.
I know only too well what massive overreach these West Coast bullies have.
In October last year I gave a speech to a Big Brother Watch event at the Conservative Party Conference. I spoke against domestic vaccine passports, challenging the supposed wisdom of introducing such a policy.
Big Brother Watch uploaded a video of my speech to their YouTube channel – and it was quickly taken down by the YouTube management! I was accused, quite outrageously, of spreading ‘medical misinformation’.
After the initial shock of being censored had passed, I went through the video line by line, cross-checking everything I had said. It all stood up. It was accurate, fair, and based on the latest scientific evidence.
Eventually, after being challenged, YouTube U-turned and my speech was back online.
But this made it plain that the big platform providers cannot be trusted with our freedom of speech. If I hadn’t been a well-known MP, would the objections have been heard so quickly, if at all?
Challenging conventional wisdom is a core premise of science, as is maintaining a constant vigorous debate. When YouTube removed my speech, they shut down that debate.
The past few days have seen the promotion of Nick Clegg to be president of global affairs at Meta, the new name for Facebook.
In this role, he will take the lead on ‘all policy matters’ including, ultimately, what is legal but harmful.
So it is worth being aware of Clegg’s background in this area.
During the debates around the Leveson inquiry into the conduct of the press, Clegg pushed for stronger state regulation of newspapers.
A wholly unwise move which would have eroded press freedom in the UK.
The Government’s current proposals see Ofcom taking on the role as regulator to protect people when they are online.
We cannot expect much help from its unelected and largely unaccountable bureaucrats who, as we know from experience, are just as susceptible to political fashion as West Coast tech moguls.
Just last year, Ofcom was criticised for taking the same view as YouTube and labelling anyone sceptical about the UK’s pandemic response as spreading ‘misinformation’.
How can we trust the tech giants to get these calls right if even the regulator fails to uphold free speech?
Ofcom is wholly unequipped to deal with the difficulties in regulating the online world and should be allowed nowhere near this area.
So what is the way forward?
The most straightforward way to deal with online misdemeanours is for Parliament to decide whether or not they should be made illegal.
Websites promoting self harm to children should be illegal in my view. And the platform providers can be trusted to enforce the law, because if they get it wrong they can be challenged in court.
Parliament should have a new Bill, every year, to consider these issues. There will be plenty of new potential offences to consider, and Parliament can do that, carefully, in public, with proper challenge and debate. And the whole process will be democratic.
As it stands, however, the Online Safety Bill is a disastrous piece of legislation that will inadvertently introduce a censor’s charter. It will leave Big Tech as the global arbiter of truth and free speech.
If you happen to be ideologically aligned with the West Coast Democrats that run these companies, perhaps you’ll be OK with that.
But for the rest of us here in the free-thinking world, we should resist any move that shuts down debate or tells us what we should be thinking.
We must make massive amendments to the Online Safety Bill.