Speaking at Conservative Party Conference in Manchester on Monday, Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries defended the government’s Online Safety Bill which, as National File previously reported, contains aggressive regulations that would seriously curtail freedom of speech online:
The bill creates a “duty of care” on websites to ensure that explicitly legal speech which has an “adverse psychological impact” is clamped down upon. This means that if the bill is passed, not only would there be a greater standard of what speech is acceptable online and offline, but the government themselves would pass the buck to that decision down initially to the Big Tech companies.
The regulatory powers for the bill have been granted to Ofcom, the body that handles broadcast media and other communications in the UK. If a website is deemed by Ofcom to have not clamped down on legal speech, including “misinformation” as the bill requests, then they could be fined up to £18 million, or even have access blocked to them entirely.
Matthew Lesh of the Adam Smith Institute said that the bill was an “incoherent train wreck” that represents “a frightening and historic attack” on free speech. “The Bill needs a serious rethink,” Lesh added. “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.”
“It’s about getting a balance,” Dorries claimed, speaking to The Telegraph’s Christopher Hope. “I want to see greater protection of children and young people, and that balance with at the same time recognizing freedom of speech… We can’t erode freedom of speech, but we also need to protect children. Trying to carve out some sort of some method, some legal way in the Online Harms Bill [sic] that protects children without harming freedom of speech is a place I’m trying to get to. It’s incredibly difficult, but we’ve got to get there.”
National File’s Jack Hadfield highlighted to Dorries many of the potential serious issues, but the Culture Secretary refused to acknowledge any flaws in the bill. “With disinformation and misinformation, I find it hard to understand how anybody would object to removing misinformation,” Dorries said. She went on to use mental health as a shield for promoting the bill, claiming that the regulation in the legislation was necessary because “some people lose their lives as a result of really unpleasant stuff online.”
Speaking exclusively to National File, Baroness Claire Fox, a free speech advocate and former Brexit Party MEP, said she feels as though Conservative ministers have not read the bill. Public polling suggests they haven’t consulted their voters.
“I genuinely feel when I talk to some of the Conservative ministers and frontbenchers that they haven’t read the bill. I don’t think they understand what’s in it.” Fox added, “They don’t really go beyond [banal statements], and when you actually try and push them about what’s in the bill, their eyes go blank, and you know they don’t know what they’re talking about, which is a problem.”
The Online Safety Bill does not seem popular with the party membership, nor the British public. According to a YouGov poll from Legal to Say, Legal to Type, 59% of Conservative Brexit voters believe that anything legal to say in person should be legal to say online, and only 6% of the public think that addressing “legal but harmful” content should be a priority for the government.
With the wide sweeping purview of the bill, websites all across the world would be affected by the legislation, which will likely be put forward in Parliament by Spring 2022. In May, Andrew Torba, the CEO of pro-free speech platform Gab, which is based in the United States, said that his company would refuse to pay any fine that the British government would issue him.
“I’m not paying anything and they can’t make us,” Torba said. “If they block access to Gab so be it, that will be massive free press and we’ll teach millions of UK citizens how to use a VPN just like the dissidents in China do.”