Snap guide to this session’s Government legislation 1) The Online Harms Bill

16 May

The Bills announced in each session’s Queen’s Speech are the fulcrum of the Parliamentary year.  But they are easily lost sight of, separately and wholly, as the political cycle moves – and a mass of other news and events crowd them out.

So during the coming months, ConservativeHome will run a brief guide, on most Sunday mornings, to each Bill from this year’s Speech: what it is, whether it’s new, its main strengths and weaknesses – and whether it’s expected sooner or later.

1. The Online Harms Bill

What it is

While the Bill itself is a product of Boris Johnson’s Government, its origin lies in Theresa May’s.  The latter set up a working group in October 2019, and responded to its recommendations in April last year, which then saw another iteration last December.

The heart of the Bill is OFCOM regulation of the internet – with a brief to balance a duty of care on providers and freedom of expression for all.  The main question that arises is: when if ever is it right to curb free expression – especially in relation to material that is not illegal, but harmful?

Responsible department

Digital, Culture, Media and Sport – though the Government’s response to the working group came with that department in the lead, and the Home Office supporting.

Oliver Dowden is thus the lead Minister in terms of making the case for the Bill to voters, and Caroline Dinenage, the Minister in the department responsible for Online Harms and Security, would be expected to take the Bill through committee.

Carried over or a new Bill?

New

Expected when?

Sooner rather than later.

Arguments for

The case for the Bill is based on the belief that the interests of the nation have primacy.  Vulnerable people should be protected against child porn, terrorist recruitment, online abuse, and encouragement to self-harm – and, in any event, all of these things are bad in themselves.

Since those who publish such material are either unwilling not to do so, or incapable of it, or both, government must act.  Ministers claim that “this legislation will protect freedom of expression and uphold media freedom” and “will be proportionate. Fewer than three per cent of UK businesses will be in scope”.

Arguments against

The case against it is founded in the view that the freedom of the individual has primacy – and that, in any event, all regulation will do is to shift the problem elsewhere.  That is, if the entire enterprise isn’t struck down by the courts, either here in the UK or by the European Court of Human Rights.

Some of those opposed to the Bill say that, even if free speech must be subject to some constraints, the providers themselves are capable of managing these without a legal obligation to do so being placed on them.  And that OFCOM specifically, or a government regulator in general, cannot be trusted to safeguard liberty.

Politics

The Bill has already provoked commentary on this site suggesting that it goes too far (see here and here) and that it may not go far enough (see here and here).  It’s significant that those writing against the Bill are connected with centre-right think tanks, and those writing for it are both MPs.

This is set to be the pattern: Tory MPs in today’s Red Wall-flavoured Conservative Party are likely to stay in step with the red top instincts of their constituents, while the conservative movement as a whole is likely to be more critical.  Those interested in how Tory MPs divide in ideological terms will watch with particular interest to see who goes against the Parliamentary consensus – and how strongly.

Controversy rating: 9/10

This one will engaged the anti-social media company newspapers, the companies themselves, free speech enthusiasts, communitarians, those who campaign against suicide, self-harm, not to mention specialists in the media, Islamist and neo-nazi extremism, and online law: that’s a lot of people and interests.