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The Online Safety Bill has sparked a free speech culture war

As child safety campaigners push for stronger regulation, a growing faction of the Tory party is crying "censorship".

By Sarah Dawood

The internet can be a source of infinite joy and immense suffering. For young people, while the digital world is a place of friendship and fun, it is also plagued with cyber bullying, self-harm videos and misinformation. Online grooming offences have increased by 70 per cent since 2018 and, in a quarter of cases where young people present to hospital with self-harm injuries and suicide attempts, they have accessed related content online. We need only look at the tragic case of 14-year-old girl Molly Russell to understand there is a fundamental problem with how social media’s recommendation algorithms work.

In response to the growing threat of an unregulated internet, the government is currently rushing to get the Online Safety Bill through parliament – a world-first piece of legislation that will place new restrictions on online platforms, including tech giants like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. With Ofcom as the regulator, tech companies will have to take down illegal content, such as footage and images of child sexual abuse, and restrict users’ access to “legal but harmful” content – which includes self-harm content, Covid-19 misinformation and persistent trolling.

But the bill, which is currently in its “report” stage where MPs can suggest amendments, has quickly become another tool in the ever exhausting culture wars – a battle between the perceived mollycoddling nanny state and the freedom brigade. Meanwhile, ministers only seem to be tightening up the rules – the bill has several new additions since its first incarnation, including a requirement for tech companies to stop users seeing state-sponsored disinformation, and to use their “best endeavours” to identify and remove child sexual abuse on encrypted messaging services.

Pro-safety campaigners argue that the bill must be strengthened further to force social media companies to share data if a young person is at risk. Andy Burrows, head of child safety online policy at children’s charity NSPCC, told the Today programme this week that insidious behaviour (such as grooming) can “migrate” from site to site, and “sharing intelligence” must be legislated. Ofcom “will not be a censor”, he argued, given that the bill is focused on systems such as algorithms, rather than scouring the internet with a fine-tooth comb to punish individuals for the odd comment on Twitter.

But free speech and privacy advocates, including Conservative leadership candidate Kemi Badenoch, are quick to cry “censorship”. Describing the bill as “legislating for hurt feelings”, Badenoch has galvanised a significant wing of backbench Tory MPs who oppose the bill’s “legal but harmful” mantra and have written to the Digital Secretary Nadine Dorries asking her to remove it entirely. The bill goes too far in restricting people’s personal liberty to offend, they argue, while removing encryption is a huge infringement on data privacy. Tory MP David Davis has said the bill “threatens being the biggest accidental curtailment of free speech in modern history”. In fact, this concern over free speech has reached beyond UK shores. Jason Miller, the American strategist and founder of social media platform Gettr, was recently in London to meet opponents of the bill. As he told the New Statesman, he fears the precedent set by the UK could influence the US and Europe.

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The Online Safety Bill is expected to become law this summer, and the government is keen not to make many more significant changes. Even some of the tech giants agree with this approach. Also on the Today programme this week, Ben McOwen Wilson, managing director for YouTube UK and Ireland, urged MPs to “pause and think carefully” before adding any amendments this late in the game, given the years that have gone into developing this complex and formative set of laws, which he described as now “largely workable and proportionate”.

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Whether the current rhetoric around free speech will make an impact on the bill remains to be seen, though it seems unlikely that the government will bow to the pressure. In fact, it only sees to be introducing more measures to regulate our online world, such as new criminal offences for cyber flashing and for sending threats to kill or rape.

Free speech is a cornerstone of any democratic society, and there is a clear need for transparency over how social media companies remove content to ensure nothing is inappropriately removed. But when the internet forms such as an integral part of young people’s lives, there is also a clear need to regulate it. Online, children face torrents of abuse, coercion into suicide and content promoting eating disorders – their futures should not be at the mercy of a culture war.

[See also: Andrew Marr: The Tories’ new nightmare]