A little-known green paper on internet safety was the source of the Online Safety Bill. It was launched by the Cameron government and released five years ago, with a focus on a voluntary code of practice and transparency requirements for social media. It would have been a relatively gradual step, a collaborative approach to solving online problems.
This modest proposal saw a transfiguration into a white paper under the Theresa May administration and continued under Boris Johnson. The resulting bill is extremely complex. It has the advantage of being targeted at a popular enemy, “Big Tech”, and has a popular cause, “protecting children”. Thus, the proposals received relatively little consideration.
But it is clear to any reader that the bill reinvents the role of the state, the digital world and their relationship to the individual. This goes far beyond previous intentions.
The bill requires social media companies and search engines to protect users from various harms. Platforms will have a duty to remove content that they “reasonably believe” may be illegal, well below the usual criminal “beyond reasonable doubt” standard. They will also have duties in relation to “lawful but harmful” speech, as defined by the Secretary of State – currently Nadine Dorries. Security obligations will be met 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 impose fines of up to 10% of global revenue for non-compliance.
Taken together, the government is lowering the censorship threshold, mandating invasive intrusions into users’ privacy and outsourcing law enforcement to tech companies. This is a deeply illiberal and anti-Conservative bill. This contradicts almost everything we expect from a Conservative government.
Conservatives insist they are champions of free speech, with new protections coming in the Bill of Rights and higher education legislation. They claim to want to take advantage of Brexit by reducing the regulatory burden and limiting the power of unaccountable regulators. Yet all of that will be undone by ushering in a new regime of online censorship – which would hardly have made it under New Labor let alone come from the Tories.
So it’s perhaps unsurprising that the ideas aren’t particularly popular among conservatives. A whopping four-fifths (79%) of Tory members think anything legal to say in public should be legal to say online, according to a YouGov poll. The same poll found that three-quarters (74%) think freedom of speech is important even if some people are offended. Meanwhile, a majority (51%) do not trust Ofcom to be impartial.
The bill, currently before Parliament, raises significant red flags. Lord Frost, the former Brexit minister who has been called the “conscience of the Conservative Party”, is the latest to add his voice. Frost warns that the bill “bends to the views of those who are constantly offended” and says “a Conservative government should not put that view into law.” MP David Davis said it “could become one of the most significant accidental attacks on free speech in modern times”.
This bill fuels the narrative, put forward by the Prime Minister’s internal critics, that the government is betraying party values. The government has borrowed and spent record sums, broken the manifesto pledge not to raise taxes, and barely scratches the surface of 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. All of this raises a deep question: Does the Conservative Party stand for anything?