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A debate: Will The Online Safety Bill Make The Internet Safer?

Howard Ricklow was delighted to be invited to attend the New Statesman debate on “Will The Online Safety Bill Make The Internet Safer?”. Both sides were passionate in their arguments.

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The proposing argument

In a nutshell those proposing the motion from Damian Collins MP and Alex Towers, Director of Policy and Public Affairs at BT argued that companies should have liability for their platforms they are making money from in relation to e.g. misinformation, hate speech and the targeting of potential victims of self-harm or suicide.

They argued that “freedom of expression” does not override these concerns.

The opposing argument:

On the other hand speaking against the motion, Ruth Smeeth, former Labour MP and Chief Executive of Index on Censorship argued that the legislation would not make the internet safer and in fact, although originally about safeguarding children, the new objective was to make it “nicer” not “safer”.

She argued that the drafting of the Bill had gone on for some 9 years and the loose definition of “what is harmful” which the Bill is intended to address, may lead to massive automatic deletions of content where the platform considers it “illegal”, leading to difficulties in prosecuting the offenders.

The argument around Free Speech

Victoria Hewson (of the Institute of Economic Affairs), the second speaker against the motion argued along the lines of free speech and whether it was the Government’s job to regulate this area in any event. Equally is it the Government’s job to be responsible for “safety” and regulate the role of social media companies? In any event the legislation would mean huge governmental intervention. She argued that many of the areas were already illegal under the Public Order Act 1986. Ruth Smeeth added that there were exceptions for some, eg journalists and traditional news media sources. Ruth mentioned the likes of Tommy Robinson, who would be able to continue to say “what he liked”.

It was also argued that this new Bill would present barriers to new social media channels such as TikTok, as well as some jurisdictional issues such as, would a US company start up in the UK with this draconian legislation?

Comment:

One point of interest to me would be whether, as is the case of the EU claiming they have extra territorial jurisdiction in relation to GDPR, this legislation would seek to prosecute or shut down overseas’ platforms if they fall foul of the legislation and how in terms of public and private international law this would work.

I will be assiduously following the progress of the Bill, and continue to update as changes arise.

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