Covering the IEA’s new report on the free speech-attacking Online Harms Bill (OHB) this morning, Guido noted “If the government wants to get the Boris show back on the road, and reassure Tory members and MPs that this government is worth fighting for – while saving at least £2.5 billion – scrapping swathes of this big-state bill could not be a more obvious starting point.” New polling released today, coinciding with the IEA’s report, shows this was on the money…
The poll of 982 Tory Party members, conducted by YouGov on behalf of the Legal to Type, Legal to Say campaign, is crystal clear that the government is utterly barking up the wrong tree here. When asked “Do you think people should or should not be able to post content online that is legal, but that some people might find offensive or harmful?”, as the OHB aims to prevent, 79% of members said people should be able to do so.
Asked whether they believe there should be a discrepancy between what is legal to say online and offline, as Lord Frost today points out the OHB will create, again 79% say “anything that is legal to say in public should be legal to say online”. Just 17% believe “there are some things that are legal to say in person, which should not be legal to say online”.
Asked whether they trust Ofcom to be impartial, 51% of members said either not very much or not at all, versus 38% who answered a great deal or a fair amount.
Asked to rank issues relating to online safety by priority for the government, 73% agreed that illegal content such as child sexual abuse is important, followed by 58% for terrorism materials and 41% for illegal online abuse such as stalking, racial abuse and harassment. Just 3% said the government should prioritise “comments which are offensive but do not break any laws”.
While 81% of Tory members trust Boris Johnson to care about freedom of speech, by contrast 80% do not trust social media companies – the people who will be given much greater moderating responsibilities after the OHB comes into force – to protect it. This all seems cut and dry. It will be very difficult for the PM to point to a change of thinking and strategy over the coming months if the anti-free speech provisions in the Online Harms Bill are not dropped…
Today Lord Frost joins Guido in the fight against the Online Harms Bill, launching an all-out assault on its threat to free speech. Frost’s no holds barred attack, including calling the bill “fundamentally flawed” and un-conservative, has been published alongside a new paper by the IEA, which accuses the bill of handing “unprecedented censorship powers to Secretary of State and Ofcom”. Objectively correct.
In full, Frost says:
“There is so much wrong with this Bill that it is hard to know where to start, but the report rightly highlights the fact that it will mean some speech that is legal offline will effectively be impossible online. That makes no sense and will be highly damaging to public debate, especially given the weakness of the free speech protections in the Bill.
“Overall the Bill also panders to the view of the perennially offended – those who think the Government should protect them from ever encountering anything they disagree with. A Conservative Government should not be putting this view into law.
“The best thing the Government could do would be to slim down the Bill so they can proceed rapidly with the genuinely uncontroversial aspects, and consign the rest where it belongs – the waste paper basket.”
Reading through the IEA’s paper, one thing that immediately jumps out to Guido is that the government’s own expected cost of the bill has jumped up from £2.1 billion in May 2021 to £2.5 billion today – a whole £400 million extra in a year. A figure the IEA rubbishes as a nonsense underestimation anyway:
“The impact assessment asserts that it will cost businesses, on average, £700 over ten years to read and understand the regulations, for example. However, this would not realistically cover the fees of a specialist law firm for two hours, let alone the internal staff time costs. The impact assessment specifically assumes staff will only require 30 minutes to familiarise themselves with the requirements of the 255-page legislation and 90 minutes to read, assess and change terms and conditions in response to the requirements. Legal advice is estimated to cost £39.23 per hour an order of magnitude less than the fees of hundreds of pounds per hour typically charged by lawyers in this field.”
Turning to the inclusion of ‘legal but harmful’ speech, which platforms will have to crack down on, huge questions remain on specifics given the government has still not formally specified categories this will include. While the obvious woke labels of ‘misogynistic abuse’ will likely be included, shadow DCMS secretary Lucy Powell has already let the mask slip on the future plans of Labour ministers to massively abuse this power:
“Lucy Powell has raised concerns that the Bill as it stands would allow ‘incels’ and ‘climate deniers’ to ‘slip through the net’. She clearly envisages an extension of the notion of ‘harmful’ to cover matters of public policy debate.”
David Davis also pitches in, warning “could end up being one of the most significant accidental infringements on free speech in modern times.” Guido can’t understand why Nadine believes this won’t backfire on Conservatives like her. Big Brother Watch already proved that her “nail your balls to the floor” tweet, if posted to Facebook, results in the post being deleted by the platform. That’s before her new free speech clamp down comes into force…
Guido encourages all policymakers to read the paper – embedded below. If the government wants to get the Boris show back on the road, and reassure Tory members and MPs that this government is worth fighting for – while saving at least £2.5 billion – scrapping swathes of this big-state bill could not be a more obvious starting point…
Intervening on the story of the day, Business Minister Paul Scully has confirmed before a Commons Select Committee that the government is not planning on arresting Elon Musk the next time he visits Britain. MP Nus Ghani asked the question in light of the DCMS Online Harms Bill, which “mandates that platforms have to remove content that emotionally distresses people – so are we going to be arresting Elon Musk when he arrives in the UK, or are we going to change the Online Safety Bill?”
Scully: “We won’t be arresting Elon Musk, I can leave that with you.”
On a more serious note, as the Institute for Economic Affairs’ Matthew Lesh pointed out last night, although Elon’s victory might herald the imminent return of free speech to the platform, he’s about to run into a major UK roadblock. Drop the plan, Nadine…
An experiment by the civil rights group Big Brother Watch has proved that politicians are walking into an anti-free speech trap that would censor their own comments. The government is intent on pressing ahead with the Online Safety Bill – set to be published next week – creating a new category of regulated “legal but harmful” speech which would hit the very politicians forcing through the change. They will be censored by their own legislation.
Using dummy accounts Big Brother Watch posted historic comments to Facebook which had been made Boris, Nadine Dorries and Angela Rayner, all three of which were removed for being offensive: Boris’s ‘burka letter boxes’ column quote; Nadine’s “nail your balls to the floor” tweet; and Raynor’s “shoot your terrorists and ask questions second” joke.
Despite appeals, all three posts remained removed from the platform…
The stunt by Big Brother Watch should alert MPs up to the damage this bill is set to do to free speech, something the government paid theoretical lip service to while eroding it in practice. Mark Johnson of Big Brother Watch says:
“These comments by high profile politicians are unpleasant and have been rightly criticised, including by ourselves. However, unpleasantness alone is not a legitimate basis for censorship. This experiment clearly demonstrates that such controversial yet lawful speech is destined for unprecedented censorship under the Online Safety”
“The Online Safety Bill would replace Britain’s carefully balanced right to free speech with the changing, censorious terms and conditions of foreign companies. The Prime Minister and the Culture Secretary should take stock of Facebook removing their own statements and drop powers to target so-called ‘legal but harmful’ speech from the Bill.”
Will DCMS finally wake up and smell the authoritarian coffee?
In 2018 Guido revealed that MP and anti-Brexit campaigner Damian Collins had spaffed £30,000 on a fake news ‘fact finding’ jolly to the US; comprising flights, luxury hotel rooms, food allowance and Amtrak tickets. It now seems Damian’s about to get another taxpayer-funded jolly thanks to a motion passed in Parliament a few weeks back. The change, approved by the House, will allow his cross-house Committee for the Draft Online Safety Bill to convene outside of the UK, “from place to place”. He and the Committee will soon be heading to Brussels…
The impending cost of Damian’s latest planned trip is raising even more eyebrows among those in the know that his last. His 2018 trip was in the role of elected chair of the DCMS Select Committee; this time he’s playing an unelected role, given to him as a consolation prize by the party. One sceptical colleague suggested it’s going to be nothing more than a “vanity project for yesterday’s man.”
One MP who attended Collins’ US jamboree noted to Guido it’ll be interesting to see whether he manages to keep costs under control this time. In 2018 he gave himself a luxury penthouse suite in the New York Benjamin Hotel, with his own bar area, while all the rest of the MPs were in normal rooms. Once again, Guido asks: has the Committee not heard of Skype?
Not only is the government’s Online Harms Bill set to massively erode online freedoms, they’ve now admitted it will cost billions to implement. The newly-published draft bill’s impact assessment indicates the authoritarian proposals will cost £2.1 billion, with £1.7 of that expected to be spent on content moderation. Costs that will cripple start-up tech companies and increase online monopolies…
Looking at the details of the draft, the bill is arguably worse than initially feared. At the same time as calling for mass restrictions of online content – unless users prove they are not a child – the Bill will create a “duty of care” on digital companies, creating extreme pressure to remove content. Larger social media sites will see this extended to having to act on “lawful but still harmful” posts – mandating the removal of legal speech. What does the government define as “harmful to adults”? Anything that could have “physical or psychological impact”. Guido aims for every story to have a psychological impact on liars, cheats and hypocrites.
For all the PM’s culture war platitudes around free speech, the Bill ties the government in knots. For example, in December Oliver Dowden and Priti Patel held up Youtube as a role model for protecting user safety online by removing Covid misinformation; however when the platform removed TalkRadio’s channel over accusations they were spreading Covid misinformation, the government personally intervened, outraged at the free speech clampdown. This Bill is feeding the beast a whole three-course meal…
The Bill also sets the Tories up for future anger as much of the regulation will fall to OFCOM, who will issue guidance on social media moderation and be able to fine and criminally sanction senior managers. This may just about work if Boris gets his way with Dacre’s appointment, though what is the plan when a future Labour government get to make appointment decisions?
The ASI’s Matthew Lesh tells Guido the bill is “an incoherent train wreck”, which represents “a frightening and historic attack on freedom of speech”
“The Bill needs a serious rethink. There needs to be a mandate on Ofcom that prevents the issuing of guidance that infringes on legal speech, open to arbitrary interpretation under the current proposals. There also needs to be a much greater focus on the perpetrators of unlawful behaviour”
Guido wonders, given we are talking about the world wide web, how this Bill will operate extra-territorially? Will Britain introduce a firewall for censorship like China? Are Guido’s servers in the Land of the First Amendment going to be blocked?