We need to ‘take back control’ of the internet

A new EU directive will censor video streaming and the UK government is still determined to regulate social media.

Liam Deacon

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Theresa May’s ‘online harms’ agenda made a comeback this week. A new select-committee report tries to capitalise on widespread fear of the coronavirus in order to advance this censorious programme, which was not expected to be implemented until 2023. A barely noticed Ofcom report released last week is even more concerning. It lays out how parts of this controversial online-harms project are to be snuck into UK law indefinitely – via an EU directive – in just a few weeks’ time.

How we got here is important. And it demonstrates exactly why we were right to vote to leave the anti-democratic EU and why our illiberal elite was so in favour of it – the EU allows politicians to implement their often unpopular agendas without public scrutiny.

The Online Harms Bill was unveiled by Therea May’s Conservative government in April last year in a panicked flurry after 14-year-old Molly Russell tragically killed herself after viewing online images of self-harm. The rushed proposals included a ‘duty of care’ on tech firms and a regulator with the power to issue heavy fines to platforms which do not censor sufficiently. Initially, these ‘harms’ included ‘trolling’ and ‘disinformation’. The definition of harm was kept deliberately vague and expansive so that it could include new ‘threats’ as they emerge. The dangers of these proposals for internet freedom have been pointed out before on spiked. And there is still a very real danger of mass censorship and the end of an open internet.

Julian Knight MP, chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Select Committee, which is behind the recent demands, insisted on Tuesday that the government ‘get on with the “world-leading” legislation on social media that we’ve long been promised’. His latest report discusses much more than self-harm videos. It calls for censorious action on anti-5G and anti-vaccination conspiracy theories, bigoted attacks on Asians linked to the virus, and, of course, Russian ‘bots’.

The report was, conveniently, released on the same day the Intelligence and Security Committee published its long-awaited report into Russian interference in British democracy. The calls for mass censorship were placed in a context of alleged attacks by the Kremlin. According to Knight, ‘the proliferation of dangerous claims about Covid-19 has been unstoppable’ and ‘without due weight of the law, social-media companies have no incentive’ to silence people.

May’s government published the initial Online Harms White Paper the month before I broke the news that it was to delay the unenforceable ‘Internet Age Verification System’ (or ‘Porn Block Law’, as we called it at the tabloids). The age-verification policy was officially abandoned a few months later. Perhaps mistakenly, some of us had hoped this would lead Boris Johnson to take a more liberal approach than his authoritarian predecessor and that he would drop the online-harms agenda outright. But then, in October, culture secretary Nicky Morgan told parliament that online-harms legislation would, in fact, be pursued because of the failure of the porn-block law.

Meanwhile, Damian Collins, one of the agenda’s loudest proponents, was ousted as chairman of the DCMS Committee in favour of Julian Knight, shortly after Boris’s re-election.

Now that Collins will no longer play a role in overseeing any official arbiter of truth online – as some have framed the online-harms agenda – he has recently set up an unofficial arbiter of truth. He is the founder of an ‘independent, expert fact-checking service for coronavirus’ called ‘Infotagion’. Lord Puttnam, the chair of the Lords Democracy and Digital Technologies Committee, who made similar calls to rush through the online-harms agenda in June, is another founder. Infotagion answers questions like, ‘Is the Illuminati behind the coronavirus?’ and ‘Is the Covid-19 lockdown intended to create a police state?’ with answers such as, ‘FALSE: DO NOT SHARE… Lockdown measures are to reduce social contact to slow the spread of Covid-19’. Collins and Co clearly do not have much faith in the intelligence of the electorate.

So who do they want to put in charge of regulating social media? The DCMS committee has given some hint in a previous report on ‘fake news’. It called on the government to use Ofcom’s broadcast-regulation powers, ‘including rules relating to accuracy and impartiality’ as ‘a basis for setting standards for online content’. In other words, they want our tweets, posts and YouTube videos to be controlled and mediated in a similar way to Sky News and the BBC.

And it looks like they are going to get their way. Ofcom revealed last week that it is pushing ahead with plans to regulate all UK-based video-sharing platforms. It will introduce interim measures, based on the Online Harms White Paper, to ensure the UK complies with the little-known EU-wide Audiovisual Media Services Directive. Ofcom put out a ‘Call For Evidence’ on 16 July to help it finalise guidance, in which it described how it will enforce ‘appropriate measures to protect young people from potentially harmful content and all users from illegal content and incitement to hatred and violence’.

In other words, a form of the online-harms agenda – pertaining to video at least – has been foisted on the UK via the EU. Despite Brexit. And it will be enforced in autumn by Ofcom, just as censorious hardliners like Collins and the DCMS committee have demanded. Ofcom was chosen to do this because, according to last week’s report, the government ‘concluded that the Online Harms White Paper process would not be completed in time’ before the EU’s transposition deadline of autumn 2020 – and before the UK fully leaves the Brexit transition period.

Outrageously, the directive will be made law in the UK in just a few weeks, with no serious parliamentary or public debate. And it will remain law after the transition period ends a few months later because all EU regulations will automatically be brought into domestic law. Ofcom adds that it will continue to work with EU bodies, which the UK will have no influence over, to enforce it and protect children from ‘hate’ and content which could impair their ‘moral development’ – whatever that means.

Ofcom is completely unsuitable for this job. Social media is more like a town-hall meeting than a television broadcast. Normal people speaking online and in videos should not be regulated like broadcasters (which are already overregulated). And they should certainly not have to apologise or face punishment when they are wrong or one-sided.

One journalist covering the report suggested that the recent Darren Grimes interview with David Starkey, which contained a racist remark, would be the type of content which could be reported and even censored by Ofcom. However, that particular exchange was shown on YouTube — and because YouTube is owned by Google and headquartered in Ireland, the video would, in fact, be regulated by an Irish body. Bizarrely, content made in Britain for a British audience could be censored by another EU state according to this interpretation of EU law. The platforms likely to come under UK jurisdiction are Twitch, TikTok, LiveLeak, Imgur, Vimeo and Snapchat, according to Ofcom.

It’s hard to know what to make of this complex web of control and restriction. But self-harm videos are already dealt with by existing laws. And contrary to claims made by Knight and the DCMS committee, there is already too much censorship of online commentary about the Covid virus – of everyone from journalists to scientists. Rather than a regulated internet, a free and open internet is needed more than ever. Rebel voices are essential in science. They are even more valuable in this era of mass conformism and should not be silenced because they go against the grain of establishment orthodoxy.

Unfortunately, the censors are winning. Social media and video platforms abandoned the principles of free speech some time ago, when they started deleting speech they considered ‘hateful’. Now, during the pandemic, they appear to have fully abandoned the principles of open inquiry and scientific method, too. They now routinely delete things they label ‘misleading’, removing the right to be wrong and presupposing that moderators know more than scientists who happen to be in a minority. The European Commission has unsurprisingly been pushing this agenda, meeting with the tech firms behind closed doors and forcing them to sign a new ‘code of conduct’ and a pledge to remove ‘fake news’.

After Brexit, it should be, finally, time for our parliament and our people to have a say about what legislation and rules should govern our internet. Boris Johnson should repeal the EU version of the online-harms agenda and abandon the plan to implement the May government’s proposals. After an initial backlash to those last year, the government insisted it would not force the blocking or deletion of legal content. It also gave some vague assurances to protect free speech. We must keep the pressure on and make sure this latest coup doesn’t go unopposed.

Liam Deacon is the Brexit Party’s former head of press.

Picture by: Getty.

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Comments

Philip Humphrey

24th July 2020 at 1:48 pm

This is exactly the sort of thing that brexit was supposed to stop. Unwanted and unnecessary legislation being snuck through by the political elite without debate or the British people even being consulted. And I can’t think of anyone more unsuited to the task of regulating the internet than OFCOM. The same outfit that allows the BBC and channel 4 how to get away with blatant bias, untruth and disinformation while prohibiting any UK equivalent to Fox News.

Angela White

24th July 2020 at 1:23 pm

The tech giants will pay lip service to any new regulations and focus their resources on new platforms that do not adhere to them. Otherwise, they wither. For them it is not a matter of principle. It is about finding a way to achieve their aims in a new environment. Appealing to them, or criticising them, is confusing outcome with cause. They are a medium, the singular of media.Read More

Jim Lawrie

24th July 2020 at 1:04 pm

The tech giants will pay lip service to any new regulations and focus their resources on new platforms that do not adhere to them. Otherwise, they wither. For them it is not a matter of principle. It is about finding a way to achieve their aims in a new environment. Appealing to them, or criticising them, is confusing outcome with cause. They are a medium, the singular of media.

Jim Lawrie

24th July 2020 at 12:18 pm

The elite had to face, after 2016, that the media influence still in their hands had diminished and would continue to do so. The internet was to blame so they had to invent bogey men to crusade against. Curtail our freedom for our own good.
No-one controls it. What the elite cannot change is that the big platforms will go the same way as has the MSM. And for the same reasons.
Paying homage to the big platforms comes across as pleading for a footstool near the top table.

Content is everything. When good content is constantly edited and shot through with political slogan and dogma, people turn away. That is the inhibition on growth of this platform. The deadweight baggage from yesteryear is still lugged from article to article. Nor least the desire, rooted in 1917, to control the media. As long as the argument is about who should control the media and its message, then you are indistinct from those you would oppose.

Stef Steer

24th July 2020 at 11:12 am

Thank you for this, clearly censorship is (called hate and misinformation of course) is going to increase under any mainstream UK party with the collaboration and indeed celebration by the tech giants. So obviously we need alternative parties and alternative apps. A few questions come to mind for me. Is Bitchute outside of this regulation? and if we use something like Dtube (decentralised video sharing) how does that work legally? Also even if these alternative platforms are ok, I expect governments and tech giants to combine with ISPs to degrade their performance, how would they stand legally with that?

Andrew Levens

24th July 2020 at 10:35 am

A lot of people think the USA is crazy allowing everyone to buy guns. Same with the internet. Some control is needed against abuse. I can’t understand how easy it is for people to cause trouble by hacking. I suspect it has something to do with the way the internet is designed for companies to collect personal information and sell stuff. A bit like the days when people left their doors unlocked. We need to start locking our hardware doors and demanding people identify themselves when they knock on our door.

Jim Lawrie

24th July 2020 at 11:47 am

I’ve installed cameras at my front door that read your eyeballs and take your fingerprints. It has been very effective in that no-one visits me any more.

Mike Stallard

24th July 2020 at 9:27 am

This raises a very important point. How do things get better?
People who censor things which they “know” are “lies” end up like the Egyptians. When Napoleon invaded them in the early 1800s, they were still charging into battle with vintage pistols and spears like their ancestors – the dreaded Mamelukes – had done when they defeated the Mongols way back in the Middle Ages. They had never changed.
All the Mamelukes were shot down by a modern army.
Galileo was tried and made to apologise to the Pope because the world, as the Church “knew” was just like the world which Aristotle had lived in a couple of millennia before his trial.
If you ban unpopular things, things which you “know” are just wrong, then you stagnate. And there is nothing more dangerous than that. As the Mamelukes found out to their cost.
The internet needs to be a place of fake news, of people saying “wrong” things and of parents checking on their children carefully and thoughtfully and with regularity. It demands a trusted, decent, generous clientele. Without that, we stagnate.

Stef Steer

24th July 2020 at 11:16 am

And that is probably all good from a globalist perspective, they keep their money and power and we keep being mushrooms

In Negative

24th July 2020 at 9:16 am

Turned it to shi-t haven’t they? It was so much nicer here before our society’s great and good got here. You knew the wnkers were taking over when they picked Facebook over Myspace…

June Ray

24th July 2020 at 7:23 am

Yeah.Whatever.

So my retired auntie and retired mum voted Brexit.

Both of them are perfectly comfortable with the idea of internet censorship in the same way millions of Mail readers are happy with video games needing age ratings and video games companies not having total freedom to depict whatever they want.

The author of this article, then, is like a man telling me I need to scrap the video games industry regulations – wasting his time chatting to someone who is going to do absolutely nothing.

I’m not stopping the author doing stuff. He’s taken back control so I suggest he finds like minded people and cracks on. But none of the Brexit voters in my family will be helping him.

it’s no good a millionaire businessman with lots of properties telling me I need to do something about low quality fire cladding on leasehold properties – I’m not ever going to go to do anything about it. He or should will need to do the things about it that they want done. I am not even going to bother writing to my MP about it.

17 million people voted Brexit. Millions of them are happy with government crack downs on freedom or whatever. The author of this article should mix with ordinary people more. Hang out with women who read the Daily Mail or whatever.

My retired auntie will potter round the garden today. Then she’ll make her husband a nice lunch. She won’t be doing anything about the regulation of the internet, ever.

Ellen Whitaker

24th July 2020 at 2:17 am

This is shocking. Theresa May turns out to be the gift that keeps on giving.

Bastard Man

24th July 2020 at 3:09 am

Hey, we were talking about it when she was around and pushing her nonsense. Everyone ignored us because we were internet weirdoes. And now we’re reaping it.

Patrick O’Dowd

24th July 2020 at 12:42 am

Notions of Internet freedom are ludicrous. It not a neutral free space, where one starts from a blank page.
It’s driven by money like so many other things, Google, Facebook, Twitter & co seeks to herd users into groups in order to sell them to advertisers. And this herding can be used for things which are far from innocuous. Regulations are necessary.

Bastard Man

24th July 2020 at 12:22 am

The declaration of freedom of the internet is something I’ve always held dear, if a bit silly. It’s simple. What’s online isn’t reality and you idiots who have stormed online since 2007 or so have trampled on that.

In Negative

24th July 2020 at 9:13 am

Turned it to shit haven’t they? It was so much nicer here before our society’s great and good got here. You knew the wankers were here when they picked Facebook over Myspace…

In Negative

24th July 2020 at 9:14 am

Turned it to sh1t haven’t they? It was so much nicer here before our society’s great and good got here. You knew the w^nkers were here when they picked Facebook over Myspace…

In Negative

24th July 2020 at 9:18 am

It’s gone to hell hasn’t it? It was so much nicer here before our society’s great and good got here. You knew the w a n k e r s had arrived when they picked FB over Myspace…

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