Scrapping ‘legal but harmful’ in Online Safety Bill is not enough

Marc Glendening

December 1, 2022

The very fact that a Conservative government is pushing through a law that makes us ‘safe’ from what we view and read on the internet is an indication of how far the new, Culture-Control Left worldview now dominates the zeitgest.

A society in which the natural assumption is that adult human beings need to be protected psychologically from the mere articulation of particular narratives and images is not one in which the values of individual freedom and self-responsibility are exactly dominant.

Once the definition of harmful conduct becomes extended to include the use of words that can trigger negative emotions (but only within selected and favoured sections of the population) then we have well and truly started our descent down the proverbial slippery slope of authoritarianism.

The Tories are the political party that is supposed to most uphold our right to enjoy personal autonomy economically and culturally, but now consistently falls into line with the contemporary left’s desire to extend state control over what we are allowed to communicate. This raises the question: what, exactly, is now the purpose of the Conservative party?

Only David Davis and Kemi Badenoch, who pledged herself to abandon the Online Safety Bill (OSB) when she was running to be party leader, appear to want to resist the drive to turn Britain into one enormous ‘safe space’. This dystopia will be one in which the contemporary left gets to decide precisely what ideological and cultural content is either acceptable to the various identity groups they claim to represent the interests of, or, on the other hand, transgressive and too dangerous to allow. As Kemi has warned, the OSB is ‘legislating for hurt feelings’ and we all know how this will end up.

Michelle Donelan, the culture secretary, has at least decided to remove the section of the Bill that would have charged the big platforms with removing not only illegal content but also material deemed to be legal but harmful. We should be grateful for very small mercies. What Boris and Nadine Dorries were thinking in the first place when paving the way for this extraordinary power beggars belief.

Needless to say, Labour, the Samaritans and charities are claiming that this will impact negatively on, yes, you guessed it, children. Religious conservatives like Mary Whitehouse back in the 1970s and 80s always used the kiddies as cover for their broader illiberal objectives and the Culture-Control Left are no different today.

The platforms will have to provide ‘tools’ for adults to not see content relating to eating disorders, misogyny and other supposedly unsettling content. Why are these necessary in the first place? I’m a terrible arachnophobe and the solution for people like me is simply not to google things such as ‘the Amazon’s biggest and hairiest tarantulas’. It’s really quite simple. Take responsibility for your own life, stop being a pseudo victim.

It is not clear where the removal of the legal but harmful provisions leaves the Bill’s sections dealing with erasing alleged mis/disinformation (needless to say, a very dangerous power to hand the state). Will the Secretary of State, Ofcom and the platforms now still have the power to remove, say, Covid vaccine-sceptical views from finding expression? Many on the Culture-Control Left want a future Labour government to use this power to have dissident views on climate change blocked.

However, other illiberal parts of the Bill are certainly being kept in place. The police will still be able to come after you if, in their opinion, you have caused a member of a ‘likely audience’ ‘severe emotional distress’. In fact there doesn’t even have to be a complainant for them to come after you, just the cops vague intuition that what you have articulated might have caused psychological ‘trauma’.

Given the type of thinking that is now so dominant within the College of Policing and the Association of Chief Constables we can safely assume that this power will only be deployed asymmetrically. Transgender-sceptics and those others who violate the fundamental shibboleths of new left ideology will get their collars felt, but not those who often deploy aggressive rhetoric against them, Tories in general, whoever the left wish to target.

The OSB is exactly the legislation that the Marxist Campaign for Press & Broadcasting Freedom started agitating for back in the 1970s. Then, what emerged as the mainstream left fervently embraced the goal of a state-regulated media, with groups such as the Media Reform Coalition and Hacked Off. A Conservative government is now about to deliver that price to them for reasons that remain unclear. It will be interesting to see how a Labour government then builds upon it.


Written by Marc Glendening

Marc Glendening is Head of Cultural Affairs at the Institute of Economic Affairs

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