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UK set to postpone controversial Online Safety Bill

It looks like UK citizens are going to be denied additional state protection when they use the internet for a bit longer.

It is being widely reported, perhaps first by PoliticsHome, that the divisive Online Safety Bill is being put on the back burner thanks to the resignation of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the consequent governmental chaos. There’s just too much other stuff to deal with before summer hols, it seems, so the passage of the bill is being delayed until the autumn.

Among its many restrictions, the bill seeks to criminalise a whole new tranche of speech, so long as it’s expressed online. There are some worthy aims, such as the protection of children from exploitation via the internet, but far too much general censorship and state control of the electronic public domain is being smuggled in alongside them. As a result there is considerable opposition to the bill, making it especially crucial that it’s not rushed through.

Assuming the reports are true, by the time the Bill is due to be presented to parliament again the government and Conservative Party will have a new leader. The Bill is currently being championed by Digital Secretary Nadine Dorries, a committed Johnson loyalist who may well lose her position in the resulting reshuffle. With any luck, she’ll be replaced by Julia Lopez, who seems far more sensible.

In the meantime, however, Dorries is doing her best to keep the Bill alive, going so far as to commission one of those surveys that conclude she’s right about everything. The Bill is even featuring in some of the Twitter banter surrounding the leadership contest, with candidate Kemi Badenoch making her feelings clear on the matter, to Dorries’ apparent ire.

While Dorries and co have had years to perfect the Online Safety Bill, it’s still bad law. There are just far too many vague, subjective terms within it such as ‘harm’. They confer excessive, unaccountable power to whoever gets to define them, which in this case is the Digital Secretary and the head of Ofcom. It is a clear attempt to increase state control in the name of safety and thus should be treated with the derision it deserves.

Having said that, we probably do need up-to-date legislation around the policing of the digital domain. Our hope is that when the Bill is next presented to parliament, fresh political talent has risen up the ranks as a result of the leadership process. Whether that’s Badenoch, Lopez or someone else doesn’t matter, so long as they value individual liberty and freedom of speech more highly than Dorries and her sponsor Johnson apparently do.

 

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