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UK government set to drop absurd attempt to censor ‘legal but harmful’ content

There are reports that the UK government intends to resurrect the troubled online safety bill, but without its most controversial component.

First introduced by then DCMS head Nadine Dorries under the Boris Johnson government, the bill immediately encountered opposition. Its stated aim of introducing extra protections for children when they are online was laudable and broadly supported, how could it not be? But, as is so often the way with legislation, a bunch of other state powers were also thrown into the mix for good measure.

In essence, the previous structure and wording of the bill appeared to use the matter of child safety as a Trojan horse to smuggle in a bunch of indirect state powers of censorship over online speech, especially via big social media platforms, that were primarily aimed at adult audiences. Even the kindest interpretation couldn’t help but note clumsy law-making born of excessive zeal.

Among its many mistakes the most egregious was a stipulation seeking to police ‘legal but harmful’ online content. How can a law prohibit things that aren’t illegal? Surely the state has no business at all involving itself in people’s legal activities. If it doesn’t want people to do something, surely it should make that thing illegal. Isn’t that how this usually works? We are left to assume that the government was, in effect, trying to circumvent the legislative process with this move, for which it was quite rightly called out.

The UK has famously been through a couple of Prime Ministers since the bill was first presented to parliament. The ill-fated Liz Truss was expected to refine it and her successor Rishi Sunak now seems set to do the right thing. UK site inews was apparently the first to report that the ‘legal but harmful’ bit will be removed, closely followed by the Sun and today by the Spectator, which has close ties to Sunak.

There don’t seem to have been any official announcements yet, and free speech campaigners won’t be popping champagne corks until they can scrutinise the published, revised bill, but this does seem to be a rare example of public pressure having a positive effect on the legislative process.

Countries like the UK like to compare themselves favourably to other parts of the world, and the tension between safety and freedom exists everywhere, but if laws like this are allowed to pass we have little claim to be better than even the most tyrannical of them.

 

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