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New UK PM set to correct Online Safety Bill

Liz Truss, who has just been made the new UK Prime Minister, has already indicated a greater respect for freedom of speech than her predecessor.

The FT is among the media to report on Truss’s first appearing in the House of Commons as PM, at which she said, in reference to the contentious proposed Online Safety Bill “What I want to make sure is we protect the under-18s from harm, but we also make sure free speech is allowed, so there may be some tweaks required.”

That statement gets to the heart of the main concerns expressed by many about a piece of legislation that seeks to give significant powers of censorship over the internet, especially social media, to the government and communications regulator Ofcom. Only the defenestration of previous PM was able to delay the passage of the bill, thus providing the opportunity to give it a rethink before presenting it to MPs once more.

In need of the closest examination is the attempt to introduce the concept of ‘legal-but-harmful’ online speech, which would empower Ofcom to take the law into its own hands as it alone would define what is harmful. Since Ofcom lacks both the expertise and capacity to become the state censor, it would likely just pander to whoever moans the loudest about stuff they don’t like on the internet.

Many high profile individuals and organisations have publicly objected to the bill on that basis, but it’s presumably pressure from backbench Conservative MPs that has persuaded Truss to propose a rethink. It must be possible to introduce strong new protections for children and other vulnerable users without resorting to such blanket censorship, so let’s hope this administration is more resourceful than the last lot.

Much of the heavy lifting will fall to new Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Michelle Donelan. She replaces Nadine Dorries who championed the bill in its previous form and declined Truss’s offer to stay on in the role. Donelan’s previous claim to fame was as the shortest-serving cabinet minister in British history after deciding to call for Johnson’s resignation within two days of him appointing her as Education Secretary, so maybe she has some principles. Let’s see.

 

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