The Online Safety Bill is being brought before Parliament with the best of intentions. Users, especially children, deserve protection from illegal content. New communications offences for cyber flashing and encouraging self-harm are welcome.
The Bill has undoubtedly improved under Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries MP and Digital Minister Chris Philip, but it remains an awful Bill. It fails to adequately recognise that freedom of expression is a fundamental democratic right that also needs protection.
Perfectly legitimate views about sex-based women’s rights have been widely censored on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Women are disproportionately affected by this censorship and the Bill, as drafted, will only make the situation worse.
Why? Because the Online Safety Bill imposes unprecedented obligations on platforms to police content. If their terms and conditions ban ‘misinformation’ or ‘hate speech’ – defining women as adult human females is ‘hate speech,’ according to one social media company – they can remove content they deem to fall within these categories, so long as they do it consistently.
Meghan Murphy, a Canadian feminist, was permanently suspended from Twitter in 2018 after referring to a transgender user who identified as ‘Jonathan Yaniv’ as ‘him’.
Twitter permanently suspended one Free Speech Union member for posting the following comment: “Women are females. Trans women are not female & never will be.” In another case, a woman was suspended from Facebook for 24 hours for breaching its “bullying and harassment” policy for saying to a trans activist “go away silly troll”.
But the danger goes beyond individual posts being removed or accounts blocked. Algorithmic preferences determine not just what we can say but what we can see. More often than being banned, content is de-prioritised (hidden) or de-monetised (can no longer receive ad revenue). This is a far more insidious form of censorship and nothing in the Bill will prevent these below-the-radar attacks on free speech.
Social media is increasingly replacing mainstream media as people’s main source of news. But social media companies (often based abroad) are not impartial on the contested issues of the day. They set the rules, they enforce the rules and they (for the most part) adjudicate. The Bill’s introduction of an appeals process is welcome. But it will not protect us from the suppression of legitimate debate that doesn’t fit a certain West Coast ideology.
This is about more than public discourse. Online debate informs law and culture. Issues such as mixed hospital wards, trans women in women’s prisons, women’s sports and gender neutral toilets and changing rooms are all hotly contested. We cannot allow activists to brand anyone who disagrees with them a ‘bigot’ and browbeat social media companies into censoring them. You may agree with these activists, you may not. But should Meta, Google and Twitter get to decide who is allowed to express their views on these issues and who’s in breach of their ‘community standards’?
There is still time to fix it. Many MPs and Lords have serious reservations about the Bill and would welcome a more pragmatic and open approach from the Government.
So let us better protect children. Age-gate the internet if you must. But let’s not abandon democratic values, or censor the debate over women’s rights, in the process.
Jennifer Powers, Director of Policy and Legislative Affairs, Free Speech Union