by Jennifer Powers
Thursday, 17
March 2022
Debate
07:00

The new Online Safety Bill: better, but still awful

The revised version will have its first reading today
by Jennifer Powers
The Bill has undoubtedly improved under Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries MP but that does not make it a good Bill

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

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Mike Michaels
Mike Michaels
6 months ago

Comment whilst you still can!

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
6 months ago

It is indeed important that the creeping censorship on line is not legally endorsed and is resisted. Even here on Unherd increased levels of censorship are imposed by automatic algorithm on particular words and comment that does not meet the moderators approval and questions the accuracy of one of their author’s statements is deleted without appeal.
This is an outstanding publication and I have emailed Freddie Sayers asking him or one of his editorial team to write an article explaining their policy as it is an important issue.
I am not unsympathetic to the difficulties they face as unmoderated comment often descends to an unreadable mess of flame wars and moderation is not cost free but recently the moderation here has appeared to become too restrictive and Guardian like.

Andrea X
Andrea X
6 months ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

Amen to that.
I have written the same email, some weeks ago now, but for now… nothing.

Jon Hawksley
Jon Hawksley
6 months ago

A very difficult issue for publishers and legislators. Not helped by whether the publisher is the person posting or the platform it is posted on. I think a reference point is needed for the platforms to rely on and it could be independent fact checkers that document the evidence they have assessed and allow a moderated dialogue to improve that assessment. Trans issues would certainly benefit from that as the polarisation is not helping either biological females or trans women.

Last edited 6 months ago by Jon Hawksley
Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
6 months ago
Reply to  Jon Hawksley

It certainly smacks of censorious propaganda when views that would have been uncontroversial 5 or 10 years ago are no longer permitted to be expressed on line on some platforms – given that most people are still of the view that a man can’t change his sex although he ought to be able to present as a woman without harassment, but should not be able to compete in woman’s’ events or enter space reserved for exclusive use by women. The matter should be capable of rational discussion.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
6 months ago
Reply to  Jon Hawksley

The problem with fact checking is that throughput history views that were widespread and regarded as unassailable facts have turned out to be totally incorrect.

David Fellowes
David Fellowes
6 months ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

It may not be all that difficult, given that, in your post above, you have given a neat summary of current views that are “widespread and regarded as unassailable facts” by the majority. I would settle for this, while still leaving future generations the right to disagree.

Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
6 months ago
Reply to  Jon Hawksley

The wording fact checks need a redefinition. Unqualified opinion is rarely factual. Partisans see facts the way they wish.