One of the aims of the Bill of Rights, announced in the Queen’s speech to replace the ineffective Human Right’s Act, is to enshrine the principle of freedom of speech here in the UK.
At the same time, the government is moving ahead with its controversial Online Safety Bill. But are the two bills compatible with one another?
There are many things to like about the Online Safety Bill, such as the criminalisation of Cyberflashing and the better safeguards against children accessing pornography. But it is also Christmas come early for those who would see authoritarian rule fall upon these great isles.
Where once those of us fighting to protect online speech could focus our efforts on repealing Section 127 of the 2003 Communications Act, now we find ourselves in a battle on two fronts to ensure that we don’t lose even more liberties to the upcoming Bill.
For some context, Section 127 of the Communications Act makes it an offence to send messages or create content of a “grossly offensive” nature. This intentionally vague term has led to a broad range of Orwellian actions from arresting comedians for making edgy jokes to teenagers being handed eight-week community orders for posting rap lyrics on their Instagram stories. A petition to repeal Section 127 received over 20,000 signatures. Unfortunately this was not enough to get time in a parliamentary debate, but it did show the public are concerned about free speech.
We are now staring down the barrel of even more frightening measures with the power to curb our individual liberty and rights. Cracking down on false information seems like a noble cause, but the powers some parts of this bill seek to hand to the government would allow them to decide what is and isn’t true.
We have seen over the course of the pandemic a diverse set of opinions surrounding vaccinations, many of which differ from the positions of governments across the world. The thought of valid concerns and opinions being shut out of the debate and criminalised is terrifying. That could just be the start of course: opinions on identity politics, foreign policy, policing and others, which are vital in ensuring we have an open and democratic system, could be deemed illegal on the turn of a dime.
The bill gives the DCMS Secretary the ability to determine what counts as “illegal” in regard to online speech and activity. Now we may think that building a tank to protect our feelings and opinions is a good thing, but what happens when someone else gets hold of the keys? You may trust one party or government not to abuse their powers, but what about the next?
I hypothesise that we will not see a chilling effect on speech straight away. Instead, we will see a slow and steady chip away at what we can and cannot say or write until we realise we’ve lost the right to free speech altogether. By that point it will already be too late.
Now, this may sound like a conspiracy theory. Surely a few anti-vaccine comments online being shut down won’t lead to the fall of western democracy. But it is important to remember how dictatorships and authoritarianism start. It is never in one go.
Regimes always start small, with things that seem innocuous and even have some semblance of support. But the phrasing is always vague and easily bent to their needs. After some time it may stop being about vaccines, and start being about identity politics. Again, this doesn’t seem so bad to a lot of people… but then it becomes about certain government policy. We have seen parents in the US labelled as domestic terrorists simply for opposing gender neutral bathrooms and Critical Race Theory in their children’s schools.
It is becoming harder and harder to distinguish modern policy from all political parties from those of “The Party” in Orwell’s 1984. When I first read 1984 as a young teenager I was intrigued by the dystopian world laid out full of political intrigue and minor sci-fi elements and couldn’t help but marvel at the creativity it must have required to create such an improbable world. When I re-read it recently my heart sank with every page as I drew more and more parallels to genuine actions taking place all over the globe.
How can we say we are going to protect freedom of speech with one piece of legislation while restricting it with another? Not only is it contradictory but it muddies the water on whether the government will protect our rights our seeks to diminish them.
Bills like this that hand more power over speech and debate to the state ensure that it is only a matter of time before we lose control over our lives, which is why it is imperative that we stand up and fight proactively now.
With the Bill of Rights upcoming, this is the perfect opportunity to amend the Online Safety Bill to remove the restrictions on our speech as well as potentially repealing laws like Section 127.
We must not stand by and allow our liberty to be stripped away from us in the name of “progress”, because once it is gone, it is almost impossible to get it back.