Matt Kilcoyne is Deputy Director at the Adam Smith Institute.
The plan announced yesterday to give Ofcom the power to censor the internet will hurt Conservatives: it will mean woke bureaucrats censoring Tory activists, undermining entrepreneurs, and threatening our free press.
Terrorist activity and child pornography are universally recognised as unacceptable both online and offline. These are already illegal, prosecutable, and must be removed from websites.
Nicky Morgan’s last act would empower Ofcom to address material that “is not illegal but has the potential to cause harm.” This is dangerous and should be either dropped entirely or rethought thoroughly by her successor. Ofcom must never be allowed to become a state censor.
Free speech is under threat from Civil Service work that doesn’t understand the Tory legacy of liberty. The powers that are going to be granted to this unelected and unaccountable body will endanger our status as a free democracy. It will further entrench the power of the tech giants, and shut out challengers who are trying to create the next generation of British tech businesses.
The Conservative Party also needs the activists who fight the good fight. They are the ones who challenge an agenda that belittles voters. They are the ones who remind people that they are not alone in having concerns about the European Union and Jeremy Corbyn’s socialist policies.
Conservatives need the rest of the voting public too. Do not underestimate just how sick, tired, and fed up and angry people are up and down the country of being told what to think. They don’t care about what is deemed ‘problematic’ or not. They don’t deserve to be talked down to just because they have different opinions than the ones heard spouted with righteous authority in the gilded corridors that we all have the privilege to walk down in Westminster.
The documents released yesterday reveal that civil servants are trying to hide their real intentions. Don’t be fooled. The ‘Online Harms’ model will require Ofcom to enforce a ‘duty of care’ and require companies to remove broad swaths of legal and illegal speech.
It’s true that the Government won’t individually remove posts. They will require tech companies to have policies that require such removal on a blanket basis. A civil servant has called this having “wider systems and processes”. Ofcom won’t need an army of censors: they will require tech companies to censor their users, or be fined or face being shut down.
If you remember, there were a few mad months last year when Theresa May decided to try and postpone Brexit again and at the same time block porn and require age verification. The Tories then got eight per cent in an election.
Well, we’ve all got Brexit done, but under yesterday’s announcement the latter proposal is back, but with requirements to age verify practically every single major website. You may need to buy a pass, enter your credit card or passport, or even scan your face to view adult versions of YouTube, Facebook or Twitter — to see a version of the internet that hasn’t been scrubbed of anything that a latter-day Mary Whitehouse of Whitehall has rubber stamped.
That’s a gift to scammers and a lovely bung to companies running age verification schemes (they’re the ones that last month said they would sue the Government because they weren’t going ahead with the porn laws).
In a free country with free and fair elections, where power transfers from one party to another, you have an incentive to keep the competition as fair as possible. Don’t give powers to yourself that you wouldn’t want your worst enemy to have.
A future Corbynista government with a state censor is not just a theoretical risk but a plausible one if this goes ahead. Public campaigns on certain issues will be shot to pieces. Right now it’s just swarms of angry people online shouting ‘racist’ or ‘sexist’ that shut down debate. In future there could be a public official requiring tech companies remove ‘hate speech’, such as saying that there is such a thing as illegal immigration or that young white men growing up on council estates are not privileged just because of the colour of their skin.
Just as they’ve shut down the Labour Party and anyone that challenges the mission of comrade Corbyn, so they could castigate – with the full power of the state – anyone that criticises the socialist revolution if they ever come to power.
This is meant to be a government of the people’s priorities. There is no clamour for a state censor living in a London-based left-wing bubble. Certainly, a fair few readers will think we already have one of those in the BBC.
In the end it is tech giants, that are supposedly being targeted, who will benefit. Every piece of legislation you put in the way of a start-up entrenches the big guys’ power. They have the cash to comply and they’re happy to see new competitors wiped out before they can even get going. They’ll have been invited into DCMS to see the legislation as it’s made and had a hand in its creation.
That’s why Facebook has broadly welcomed new online regulations. Is it really the role of the Conservative Party to ensure that Nick Clegg, Facebook’s Vice-President, gets his bonus for creating barriers to entry for emerging competitors?
This law is badly thought through by a Secretary of State that’s now left cabinet. Time for this plan to censor the internet to go with her.