Online safety is important, but it must not jeopardise free speech

Few pieces of legislation have been more anticipated and discussed before entering Parliament than the Online Harms Bill which has its Second Reading in the Commons today.

The aim of the measure is to protect children from the pernicious impact of a communications innovation that did not exist when their parents were young yet which now pervades everything they do.

The law does not easily deal with this because it subjects to regulatory control that which in other circumstances would be free expression.

Everyone is, or should be, anxious to ensure that the social media platforms operated by the internet giants are as benign as possible. Unfortunately they serve to amplify the nastier sides of human life and offer the opportunity for the dissemination of appalling images and views to those who in the past would have been unable to access them.

The internet companies argue they are simply platforms for people to interact and if that sometimes leads to unfortunate consequences, such as bullying or exposure to extreme content, then that is the price to be paid for living in a free society.

It is the job of government, however, to limit harm if possible. As Nadine Dorries, the Culture Secretary, and Dame Rachel de Souza, the Children’s Commissioner, write in The Daily Telegraph today, the failure of tech firms to enforce age limits or effectively control their output means legislation is needed. What is crucial, however, is that it avoids the law of unintended consequences that often applies to such measures. There is a concern among Tory MPs that the “woke” prejudices of internet companies will stifle free speech. This is because if a tech platform considers an opinion or comment “harmful” to other users, it has a legal duty to remove it. But what Twitter might regard as harmful could be considered merely controversial but acceptable by others.

The Commons culture committee has voiced “urgent concerns” that the draft legislation neither adequately protects freedom of expression nor was robust enough to tackle the various types of illegal and harmful content on user-to-user and search services.

Ms Dorries proposes that the arbitrary removal of content deemed to be “inappropriate” would be disallowed and a list of priority harms included in the Bill to restrict its scope. We hope this will ensure the baby of free speech is not thrown out with the bathwater of offensive material. This is an important Bill. It is incumbent on Parliament to get it right.

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