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UK Online Safety Bill divides political opinion once more

The UK government has been forced to amend its ill-fated Online Safety Bill once more thanks to a rebellion from its own MPs.

The BBC reports that ‘Tech bosses could face jail after Tory MPs revolt on bill’. The extensively tweaked bill is scheduled to be reintroduced to the House of Commons today. It seems 48 MPs on the government side of the House have threatened to vote against the passage of the bill unless it is further amended to include a two-year jail sentence for the managers of social media companies who are deemed to have failed to prevent children seeing harmful material.

Combined with the inevitable full support of the main opposition party, those MPs have the power to block the passage of the bill once more, so the government has capitulated. Specifically it has apparently provided verbal assurances that it will tweak the bill to codify the prison time demanded.

This latest development comes despite the fact that the matter of personal liability for senior managers of social media companies had been explored during the initial consultation phase of the bill and rejected. “4.49 The government also consulted on whether senior managers should be personally liable for failures to meet the duty of care,” states the relevant section of the consultation. “This emerged as an area of concern, with industry highlighting the risk of potential negative impacts on the attractiveness of the UK tech sector.”

Nonetheless, in its current form the bill does equip UK comms regulator Ofcom with apparent legal powers to punish those managers wherever it sees fit, but even that isn’t enough for the Tory rebels. The government is now faced with the impossible task of reconciling their demands with the findings of its original research.

Senior managers at social media firms “will not want to run the risk of going to jail,” opined one of the rebel MPs – Bill Cash. That seems like a fairly safe bet and will presumably result in a massive over-abundance of caution in their UK content moderation policies, for fear of dawn raids by the UK speech police. In other words, much greater levels of censorship across the board.

As with so much that has been wrong with this bill from the start, this latest demand would introduce even more vagueness and subjectivity to the law. As Matthew Lesh, Head of Public Policy at the Institute of Economic Affairs, writes “Frighteningly for the rule of law, it would be entirely unclear how a manager is meant to comply.

“The Bill requires platforms to limit harm to children while giving consideration to age, characteristics and group membership (e.g. gender, race, sexuality, nationality, etc).  But there is no threshold for “harm” or a list of characteristics under consideration. The Bill defines harm as “physical or psychological harm”. This circular definition could mean pretty much anything while institutionalising the core premise of “cancel culture” – that it is essential to protect people from ideas which cause emotional distress.”

Surely it’s ridiculous to threaten a group of people with imprisonment without even defining the activities they’re legally compelled to undertake. There will always be a tension between safety and freedom and it is generally accepted that more needs to be done to protect children from the worst of the internet, but badly written law and blanket censorship are not the answer.

 

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