The United Kingdom has taken a step closer to CCP-style totalitarian censorship with its Online Safety Bill.
If you believe the spin being put on it by Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden, it’s just a wonderful, warm, cuddly venture designed to protect the kiddies from harm:
Under our draft legislation, social media companies will have to take steps to shield young users from illegal activity online as well as inappropriate and harmful content, like pornography or self-harm material.
There are even some eye-wash clauses about how very much Boris Johnson’s authoritarian government values freedom of speech — and how this bill will protect it more strongly than ever. Note in this paragraph how Dowden (or his speechwriter) cynically pretends to get down with the right-wing kids by brandishing that trigger word “woke”:
The last thing we want is for users or journalists to be silenced on the whims of a tech CEO or woke campaigners. So this legislation also includes strong safeguards for free speech — including a new general requirement for social media companies to protect freedom of expression when moderating content. If someone feels their content has been taken down unfairly, they’ll have the right to appeal.
And the draft document itself is so ineffably tedious that hardly anyone will bother reading it, let alone protest about it. But this, freedom of speech campaigners are warning, would be a grave mistake.
As the Adam Smith Institute’s Matthew Lesh has said, the Online Safety Bill is an “incoherent train wreck” which represents a “frightening and historic attack on freedom of expression”:
The scope of these proposals is practically limitless, encompassing everything from ‘trolling’ to ‘fraud’ and ‘misinformation’. It will threaten privacy by age-restricting the entire internet: requiring websites to gather drivers’ licenses and passports to ensure services are age-appropriate. The vagueness of the legislation means there will be nothing to stop Ofcom and a future government including any additional measures in future.
The costs to businesses will be huge, with the Government’s impact assessment indicating that the proposals will cost £2.1 billion, with an extraordinary £1.7 billion expected to be spent on content moderation. These costs will be crippling for start-ups and scale-ups, cementing the power of Big Tech.
On this occasion the Adam Smith Institute is dead right. Never mind the government’s press releases or breathless claims in the Mail that “the aim is to make Britain one of the safest places to be online in the world — especially for children”: the devil is all in the detail.
Here is one of the scariest parts, as described in the government’s press release:
The largest and most popular social media sites (Category 1 services) will need to act on content that is lawful but still harmful such as abuse that falls below the threshold of a criminal offence, encouragement of self-harm and mis/disinformation. Category 1 platforms will need to state explicitly in their terms and conditions how they will address these legal harms and Ofcom will hold them to account.
Wait, what? Anyone who is not a doctrinaire leftist will have almost certainly already have experienced being censored by one of the Big Tech companies for wrongthink. You might have hoped that a notionally Conservative government which has hitherto made noises about the importance of “free speech” would be making efforts to try to protect its citizens from this censorship. Instead, here it is flagrantly giving Twitter, YouTube, Google and so on yet more of an excuse to clamp down on their non-woke ideological opponents.
Note especially this phrase:
Lawful but still harmful such as abuse that falls below the threshold of a criminal offence, encouragement of self-harm and mis/disinformation.
It’s so loosely expressed — deliberately so, one imagines — that it gives both Big Tech companies and the government’s regulatory body Ofcom carte blanche to censor anything they wish.
“Mis/disinformation” is a concept which depends very much on the eye of the beholder.
It could easily be used as an excuse to silence any criticism of, say, government coronavirus policy, or any concerns about “vaccines”, or about “climate change”.
As Reclaim the Net says:
When it comes to defining harmful content, the scope is wide, vague, and subjective. The bill defines “content that is harmful to adults” as anything where “the provider of the service has reasonable grounds to believe that the nature of the content is such that there is a material risk of the content having, or indirectly having, a significant adverse physical or psychological impact on an adult of ordinary sensibilities.”
Not only will this bill force Big Tech platforms to amp up their censorship but it will also likely give the mainstream media outlets that have been one of the main proponents of this bill further advantages over smaller creators on social media.