It would take a brave sketch writer to pass any verdict on this Online Safety Bill. It needs a godlike reach to predict its real-world effects. Its consequences are legion. It contains multitudes.
What is observable from secondary indications (that is, the lamentations of Labour), Secretary Michelle Donelan does seem to have been true to her word. The issue of causing “harm” to adults is out – the great theme of free speech is in. Social media companies are obliged to take “particular” note of speech freedom. The “legal but harmful” concept has been eliminated and replaced with “user-empowerment tools” (you will be able to opt out of seeing material you don’t like).
Labour, wanting all to be safe (the word here has a special sense) worries that offence has been cut out of the Bill to be replaced by the greater transgression of harm. However harm, in its own special sense, has recently been elasticised to include offence. Just as offence now includes criticism and disagreement all under the all-encompassing concept of hate. How will that work out, in cyberspace, when a disgruntled hysteric claims to have been erased by mild criticism? The answer is – it won’t be the Government’s worry.
The responsibility of causing harm is to be laid on the shoulders of the social media platforms. They must conduct risk assessments. They must “offer users tools to reduce users’ exposure” to certain sorts of content – abuse, mainly; if the content abuses people for their race, religion, sex or gender reassignment. Paul Scully relies on the platform’s terms and conditions to be more restrictive than the Bill’s. Will this result in greater suppression of speech, even after particular note has been taken of free speech? Who can tell? Does free speech have a special meaning, too? It probably depends who you’re talking to.
When the Bill comes back to the Commons for its final Report, these matters will be teased out more fully.
What has been clear is the immense theological divide between the Bill’s showrunners and the Oppositions.
Were it left to the Left, the drafting would have been very different. When Paul Scully said the arguments around climate change were complex and subjective Labour and the SNP gasped. It was audible. Sarah Owen put her hands over her eyes. Kirsty Blackman intervened: “Did I hear the Minister say that climate change was subjective?”
Without wanting to do them an injustice, they would dearly love to make climate change denial (that is, asserting that it is probably half-natural) a punishable crime. They would make anti-mask argument illegal. They would tax irrational beliefs. They would sanctify official information. They would support a Ministry of Truth such as America recently instituted.
And who is to say they won’t come back to the Act in the fullness of time? Minister Scully has said it will be easily added to, by ministerial fiat, if there is popular demand. When Labour’s Alex Davies-Jones sits in the ministerial chair, she will be able to do great things, terrible things to make us all safe online.