Online Safety Bill ‘risks most draconian internet censorship in the Western world’

15 april 2022

The Christian Institute is warning MPs that the Government’s Online Safety Bill needs radical amendments to prevent it from trampling on free speech.

The Bill will require social media companies and search engines to restrict content which is ‘legal but harmful’ to adults. It will empower Government ministers to decide what this covers.

Ahead of the first debate on the Bill next week, the Institute issued a briefing to MPs welcoming protections for children and action against illegal content, but explaining that restrictions on content deemed ‘legal but harmful’ is wide open to misuse.

‘Free speech will be the loser’

Outlining some of the problems with the Bill, the Institute explained that there is currently no clarity as to what legal content will be considered ‘harmful’. It will eventually be laid out in secondary legislation, but this means Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries and her successors will be able to amend it with little parliamentary scrutiny.

The briefing also warned that tech companies, which could be fined up to ten per cent of their annual global turnover if they fail to uphold their new duties, are likely to censor “far more than they need to”.

It pointed out that “Silicon Valley billionaires have already shown themselves very willing to take down views they personally disagree with”, and that rather than help the situation, the new Bill “will put companies’ repressive tendencies on steroids”.

The Bill will also turn Ofcom “into the most powerful internet regulator in the West”. The briefing noted that, given Ofcom and its predecessors’ track records on censoring Christian broadcasts, “free speech will be the loser”.

‘Draconian censorship’

Simon Calvert, the Institute’s Deputy Director for Public Affairs, said: “The Online Safety Bill fixes important problems, but puts free speech in jeopardy.

“Yes, Big Tech companies must take more responsibility for the content on their platforms. But the Government’s approach is incredibly dangerous. It will hand weapons to Government ministers to silence views they disagree with and apply strong commercial pressure to Big Tech executives to do the same.

“It risks the most draconian censorship of ideas on the internet in the Western world. The Bill needs much stronger protections for free speech, with fewer powers handed over to the Secretary of State and Ofcom.

“Freedom of speech is under attack today. Many activists take the view that ‘you can say anything we like’! The only opinions they want in the public square are their own. Although well-intentioned, this Online Safety Bill will hand weapons to these thin-skinned activists to silence their opponents.”

‘Big Tech’s worst instincts’

Mr Calvert continued: “This vague notion of restricting content deemed ‘legal but harmful to adults’ will encourage Big Tech’s worst instincts. Most of Silicon Valley shares a very clear social and political agenda. They already promote ideas they like and downgrade those they don’t.

“This Bill will make that even worse. It actually incentivises activists to complain to social media companies about opinions they don’t like.”

He concluded: “Mainstream Christian beliefs are already being cynically attacked as ‘harmful’ by activists intent on silencing them. The Government should be standing up to these bullies, not giving them a stick to beat us with.

“Free speech in the UK should not be decided by Silicon Valley executives. And Government ministers should not be able to bring in laws censoring speech without Parliament having the opportunity to amend them.”

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