We now have the long-awaited, long-feared Online Safety Bill before the House of Commons. It is nowhere near as bad as the proposals which preceded it, though that is faint praise: past proposals were repulsive.
In 226 pages of dense-packed text, the Bill will lose you. It is badly written tortuous, self-contradictory, tautologous, recursive: it is written by those who do not know what they are talking about, to be sent out for administration by those who do not know what they are doing. That is just how new law works. A curse lies within its heart; OFCOM, whose name appears some 650 times. This is not law: it is command by apparatchiks.
The Bill is not the monster presaged by earlier consultations: it does not seek to ban all subjective harm and hand the power to do so to an easily bullied official. It narrows the scope of this intervention to actual illegality and children’s online safety, both of which are needed. Then again, the impenetrability of the Bill may hide more than it admits. There is also “Adults’ online safety”, which could in fact be used to ban anything, as far as anyone can tell.
“Harm” means psychological harm amounting to at least serious distress.
Nadine Dorries has praised the bill as liberal and assertive of free speech. I cannot imagine that she has read it. If she wanted to protect web users from actual online harm, if the Bill just did what she says, it would have been done on fewer than 10 pages, with no power to make codes and regulation, and just one line about OFCOM.
Instead, we have a civil servant’s wildest dream. He who controls OFCOM will control the web, and not just social media, but it can rope in all academic research, commercial marketing and information of any sort. Just thirty years ago, research was carried out on paper, in dusty libraries with whatever volumes a librarian thought to place there. The Web was created initially for academic research, but we could weirdly find ourselves in a position that the paper libraries are the better source again.
Trying to get into the guts, this Bill tries to pin the amorphous web into three categories of services: not “1”, “2” and “3” but “1“, “2A” and “2B“. (Those forest cultures said to have no numbers beyond two are perhaps more advanced than we thought.) Anyway, these three innumerate categories are of services all of which must be entered on an OFCOM register:
- “Category 1”: a regulated user-to-user service meeting “Category 1 threshold conditions”;
- “Category 2A”: a regulated search service or combined service meeting “Category 2A threshold conditions”;
- “Category 2B”: a regulated user-to-user service meeting “Category 2B threshold conditions”.
Lest you think these are defined, each refers to a preceding subsection, which refers to a Schedule for “threshold conditions”, which contains no definition but hands power to make the definitions to the Secretary of State. Yes – in two years’ time, your internet access could be controlled by Angela Rayner or Diane Abbott.
We have a key definition in Clause 2 that a “user-to-user service” means “an internet service by means of which content that is generated directly on the service by a user of the service, or uploaded to or shared on the service by a user of the service, may be encountered by another user, or other users, of the service.” That is everything on the worldwide web. It is intended to mean YouTube and those sites where teenagers upload indecent pictures, but what it actually covers is every website at all – all are created by users of the web. The DCMS could properly object that it s not intended, that there are exemptions etc, but I challenge them to interpret these. The Bill is keen on definitions, but every one is defined by reference to other definitions found scattered elsewhere in the Bill, each then defined by another, and some of which are, such as the key term “user” are, after several jumps about, found not to be defined at all.
This nonsense shames Parliament. An Act for online safety is needed, but this? Cut out 99% of it and start again, but otherwise dump it.