Online Safety Bill Back in Committee for Surgical Changes mdi-fullscreen

Guido treads warily here. MPs and clerks have been at this Bill for five years with several secretaries of state and governments galore. Last week, its 243 pages were at Report stage – actually heading to the floor of the House with a number of sinister clauses in it – when Secretary of State Michelle Donelan ordered it back into committee for surgery. All  provisions curtailing the idea of “legal but harmful” speech or “lawful but awful” communications were to be cut out from the Bill.

Has that happened? Has it been cleaned up, cleaned out, cleaned?

On Minister Scully’s account, it wasn’t clear to the back of the room. As a text-to-speech device, Paul Scully will benefit from an upgrade. The urgent monotone, the quick-fire of drafting terms – it’s not easy to keep up for those who haven’t been toiling in this particular vineyard as long as he.

However, the Oppositions gave clarity. On the account of the SNP’s Kirsty Blackman and Labour’s Charlotte Nichols, it is now a completely different Bill: “It is not an online safety Bill, it is a child protection Bill.”

That sounded quite good. Ah, but no. The Bill now failed to create a safe internet. And safety was paramount.

As a brief prologue, Guido remembers six or seven years ago, the emergence of “safety” as a political means of exchange. A college address in America by right-wing Ben Shapiro was interrupted by students standing up and chanting Safe-tee! Safe-tee! They made it impossible to continue. Safe-tee! Safe-tee! They found his conservative-minded arguments to be this new thing – unsafe.

Labour and the SNP’s Kirsty Blackman said in different ways that the modifications to the Bill would make the internet unsafe. That keeping people safe was at the heart of everything MPs should be doing. That vulnerable young people – just because they had reached the age of 18 – should be protected from hearing or seeing certain things. The misogynistic incel cult, for instance. Radicalisation material, promotion of suicide, self-harm, child abuse, terrorism.

Left and right will agree at the extreme end of the spectrum. Even libertarians flinch at the thought of five-year-olds being sexualised by gender ideology. Suicide sites – what parent wouldn’t sleep easier knowing their children weren’t spending time in the company of trolls chanting Jump! Jump! Jump! at them.

Where do we part company?

Does “medical misinformation” really describe arguments saying that, for instance, masks are less effective than claimed? Theory was presented as fact. The Barrington Declaration (in which scientists argued against lockdown) was always deserving of debate. Does the Left really want to defend egregiously wrong official information on grounds of safety?

The theory that Bill Gates’s vaccines plants microchips in us – does that really make the world any more “unsafe” than it is? The idea that the world is run by Jewish lizard people – the trope mentioned by Charlotte Nichols – is that actually a matter of public safety? At what point does the man on the Clapham omnibus decide that sunshine is a disinfectant for such a thought, and these views are better laughed at than banned? And does the more extreme Islamist rhetoric fall into the category of horrible comedy, whatever its possible real-world effects?

Will the new Bill, the mutilated/improved Bill allow or disallow these vagaries, these absurdities, these entertainments?

The SNP’s Kirsty Blackman declared it a “victory for free speech campaigners” which sounded encouraging to some of us. But then, we’ll need to go to the details to find the devil.

The session continues this afternoon.

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