Taming the tech giants is one factor. Giving free rein to censors fairly one other | Nick Cohen
ÖAttitudes towards censorship should not be based on sympathy for those who are censored, but rather on fear of censorship. To loud applause, the British government says it wants to implement the most far-reaching web regulation of any Western democracy. Too few realize that when asked how to curb internet hatred, the Conservatives’ answer is to give excessive powers to their politicians and make Paul Dacre the country’s chief internet censor.
The Online Safety Act will not only tell Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok and search engines that they must have systems in place to prevent illegal content, but also to take action against “legal but harmful” posts. What does that mean? Commentators say regulation of legal speech is in the bill to prevent anorexic teenagers from being bombarded with unhealthy diet tips, or the algorithm that sends suicide advice to people about to take their lives, or ivermectin as Promotes cure for Covid.
For reasons I’ll go into later, we don’t know yet. However, we know for sure that a government that wants to uphold web standards is breaking any standard of good governance to ensure that a former Daily Mail editor has a loud voice in deciding where to draw the lines. Downing Street desperately hopes Dacre will become chairman of Ofcom the moment it expands its powers. The legislation will turn the broadcaster regulator into a gigantic online moderator. Ofcom employees have the right of entry and inspection and can impose fines on online businesses of £ 18 million or 10% annual revenue, whichever is greater.
Even his most loyal fans wouldn’t say Dacre was famous for his impartiality when it came to the BBC and Channel 4 News. His Daily Mail wasn’t the first place you would look for Resistance Against Hate, either online or in print. As the last of the old hot metal editors, Dacre is unlikely to know much about modern media technology and consider a network protocol to be a Robert Ludlum thriller.
Last year, the government’s own nomination advisors concluded that Dacre’s strong opinions about the UK media were preventing him from becoming Ofcom chairman. The ministers refused to accept the verdict. They are now combing the country for unscrupulous interviewers willing to earn the favor of the mighty by authorizing a Dacre clash.
Although the preference terrifies many, officials comfort themselves that Dacre will only be a man on Ofcom’s board of directors and will not be able to enforce his prejudices. Their trust would be better founded if legislation did not give conservative politicians the right to tell everyone at Ofcom what they can and cannot regulate.
British regulators have always kept their distance from politics. The UK is party to a Council of Europe declaration that governments must avoid “regulators under the influence of political power”. The online security law is tearing this old principle apart.
Today’s Minister of Culture, Nadine Dorries, who, like Dacre, is there to troll liberals, does not allow herself to be restricted. The bill gives her the power to set Ofcom’s “strategic priorities”. Ofcom must submit any online code of conduct to Whitehall so that ministers can ensure that it “reflects government policy”. The Conservatives are not at a distance. They want regulators on their backs.
William Perrin and Prof. Lorna Woods of Carnegie UK helped develop the best ideas behind the bill. They stressed the need to regulate systems, not content. They wanted to ensure that Facebook and Twitter not only take profits for managers and shareholders, but also spend money on complaint systems that are adequately resourced and up to the standards they profess to uphold. In a warning that the naive Labor Frontbench should read before continuing to support the government, Perrin and Woods described the government’s threat of “traditional controls and adjustments.” Attempts to force regulators to obey political orders “crossed the line” in the most “egregious” way.
The ministers want to guide a supposedly independent regulatory authority with legal instruments that parliament seldom rejects. Since we don’t know what Dorries’ dictations will look like, I can’t say whether Black Lives Matter, LGBT rights, or Extinction Rebellion supporters should be concerned about their online presence. But I can show that online regulation has already been twisted for partisan purposes.
When the government made proposals to monitor the Internet in 2019, officials were reasonably concerned about attacks on democracy. Russian interference in Western elections and the emergence of dark money and deliberate misinformation have convinced Whitehall to speak of the need to protect our “democratic values and principles”. Social media companies need to “increase the accessibility of trustworthy and diverse news content”. Earlier this month, whistleblower Frances Haugen claimed that Facebook had increased hatred and misinformation because “civil integrity” was bad for business. Social media companies have benefited from the realization that “content that is hateful, divisive, polarizing gets the most engagement online”. The 2019 proposals were designed to get right to the point.
It’s all gone now. Researchers at UCL’s Constitutional Department compared the first draft with the final bill. With the disappearance of the fight against fake news, the focus shifted decisively away from recognizing that online platforms have a responsibility for the impact of their technology on democracy.
The conservative party is always the richest party. In 2019, she received two-thirds of all political donations over £ 7,500. It benefited from the propaganda campaigns of shadowy right-wing extremist organizations in the parliamentary elections, which did not have to disclose where their income came from. The Conservative party is also the Vote Leave party, which pioneered the use of Facebook ads to target swing voters. I always thought that a government dominated by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove would never allow fake news to be attacked, and that has been proven.
I sympathize with those who promote online suicide, anorexia, refusal to vaccinate, murder, rape, and every other nasty technology of the 21st. But just because we have new technology doesn’t mean we can give up old rules. Before giving authority to censorship, make sure you know who you are going to give it to and what to do with it.
Nick Cohen is an Observer columnist