Profile: Chris Philp, charged with the nightmarish task of seeing the Online Safety Bill through the Commons

15 Apr

You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. This, however, is the task to which Chris Philp will from next Tuesday have to apply himself as he strives to see the Online Safety Bill through the Commons.

It is expected to be the most amended Bill in history, for everyone who has had anything to do with the legislation admits that it is in an unsatisfactory state, with terms like “a bloody nightmare” often used.

The Online Safety Bill sets out to regulate the internet. This means anyone who has ever been annoyed by something which happened to them online has views about what it should ban or at least ameliorate, which in turn means virtually every MP and peer.

John Whittingdale, a former Culture Secretary, told ConHome it is quite wrong that only one day, Tuesday, has been allowed for the Second Reading, and observed that it really needs two.

Whittingdale pointed out that on Tuesday there are likely to be statements on Ukraine, Downing Street parties and energy, which means those who want to speak on “this hugely important and hideously complicated Bill will get about 30 seconds each”.

At the heart of the legislation is an unresolved struggle between free speech – the right, under the law, to publish whatever one wishes on the internet – and the proposal to remove “legal but harmful” content.

As the Bill goes through its Committee stage, Philp will be charged with the task of deciding which amendments the Government intends to accept, and which it opposes.

This will require a grasp of the detail, which he is universally agreed to possess, just as he did in his previous ministerial post at the Home Office, which included the vexed question of cross-Channel migration.

It will also, however, require the ability under pressure to shape incompatible elements into a coherent whole which can command parliamentary and public confidence, and here one simply does not know how he will get on.

His officials find he masters his brief with almost miraculous speed, but is deficient in social skills, and is not the kind of person who says at the end of an arduous day,  or to whom one might oneself feel able to say, “Shall we go for a drink?”

If Philp succeeds, he be marked out as a rising star. If he fails, and antagonises parliamentarians as he fails, the role of scapegoat awaits him, even though the whole venture was set in motion four years ago by Theresa May, along with various other pious aspirations which are easier said than done, such as the Net Zero target and the ban on conversion therapy.

When Nadine Dorries, since 15th September 2021 Culture Secretary, and her sidekick Philp, appointed the next day Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Tech and the Digital Economy, appeared in November before the Joint Committee on the Draft Online Safety Bill, the following exchange took place:

The Chair, Damian Collins: “Thank you very much. You say that you have been looking at progressing the Bill since you were appointed as Secretary of State. By that, would it be fair to assume that, as far as you and the department are concerned, the Bill as published in draft form earlier this year is not the Government’s final word on the legislation?”

Nadine Dorries: “No, it is not the Government’s final word. It is not my final word. I have been pushing on a number of areas, which I hope to be able to highlight this morning. It is not the final word because of the work that you have been undertaking. I want to reassure you that we are awaiting your recommendations as soon as possible, and we will be looking at them very seriously indeed. At the risk of saying too much, I want to reassure you that they will be very carefully and very seriously looked at. I see this as very much a joint effort on behalf of all of us.”

So the Government is open, or claims it is open, to being pushed around: an additional incentive for both the Commons and the Lords to try to push Philp around.

Insiders say the legislation is already festooned like a Christmas tree: “Nadine keeps hanging more and more things on it.”

Dorries says this is “the most important piece of legislation to pass through Parliament” in her 17 years in the House, and “has to be watertight”:

“In my previous role as Minister for Mental Health and Suicide Prevention for two years, I made a point of meeting with the parents of children who had lost their lives, had taken their own lives. I cannot put into words how devastating it is to sit down with parents of children who have taken their own lives needlessly. It was not that they went online and looked for the means to do so, but because algorithms took them in that direction, whether it was to pro-anorexia sites, suicide chatrooms or self-harm sites.”

This is one of the harms which the giant tech companies will be required to take reasonable steps to prevent. So Philp has got to produce a Bill which will not only stand up to parliamentary scrutiny, but to the world’s top lawyers, employed by Facebook and Google.

One danger is that the big tech companies, which will be liable under the Act to fines of up to ten per cent of their global turnover, will err on the side of caution, and will censor anything which might conceivably cause harm. To some extent, this is already happening.

It is easy enough to agree that children should not be encouraged, by algorithms which guide them to the wrong sites, to commit suicide.

But what about adults who wish to discuss climate change, or the best way to treat a mysterious new virus which has just emerged in China? “Legal but harmful” could result in the censorship of various ideas which are regarded with horror in Silicon Valley, but which in Britain we wish to be free to discuss.

Are Mark Zuckerberg and Nick Clegg to be the arbiters of thought in Sheffield and Swansea?

OFCOM will be given the task of implementing the Act. It will draw up a code of practice, which the tech companies will have a duty either to follow, or to show they have matched. “The point of bite is at the duty level,” Philp told the joint committee.

“We must also remember that we have given OFCOM teeth, some may say fangs,” Dorries added.

Dorries and Philp stand shoulder to shoulder. When John Nicolson (SNP, Ochil and South Perthshire) tried to rough up Dorries, Philp asked: “Are these questions designed to scrutinise the Bill or personally to attack the Secretary of State?”

And Dorries soon afterwards said of Philp: “I know he is very keen to give you the technical answer. I am so glad he is here.”

But to the condundrums posed by the Bill, there will not be technical answers.

Nor will Philp be able, as has been his inclination in his career so far, simply to follow with ostentatious fidelity the party line.

There is, as yet, no party line. On the one side are MPs like David Davis and Steve Baker who are vigilant defenders of free speech.

On the other are figures like Dorries who voice the desire of parents everywhere, and especially in seats captured from Labour in 2019, to have their children protected from perverts and pornographers, and their grandmothers from online fraudsters.

And there are other powerful interests which Philp will be under pressure to accommodate. Many Remainer MPs are obsessed with disinformation, to which they attribute their defeat in the 2016 referendum. The Home Office is keen, for reasons of national security, to end encrypted messaging.

British newspapers want to take revenge on the Californian tech giants which have stolen their advertising revenues.

In an attempt to conciliate the newspaper industry, the Bill includes special protections for journalism, a term which is hard to define in the age of the citizen journalist.

Nor is the Daily Mail easy to conciliate on a long-term basis. Last month Philp wrote a piece for it in which he said:

Social media sites currently operate under no one’s rules but their own.

This has led to an online world where teenagers’ lives can be ruined by cyberbullying, suicide is encouraged, vulnerable people are radicalised by terrorists, kids are exposed to pornography and racist bile is shared without consequence.

What’s worse – a lot of this vile stuff is actively promoted to huge audiences via algorithms simply because it makes social media firms more money.

The case for regulation couldn’t be clearer: We have a moral duty to make big tech take action and clean up the internet once and for all. As a father, nothing could be more important to me…

Trusted news sites such as MailOnline will be exempt from the Bill’s provisions, including its reader comment sections which inspire such lively debate.

Ofcom will hold tech giants to account with tough powers to issue multi-billion-pound fines and block them in the UK.

I cannot be alone (the style is infectious) in finding something repugnant in a Government minister, or even a regulator devised and perhaps leant upon by the minister, deciding which news sites are “trusted”.

Where do questions of good taste and manners end, and the “harms” which the Bill is supposed to avert begin? That is an impossible border to draw, especially as it is fluid.

Boris Johnson became Prime Minister in part because of his genius for saying and writing things which were in poor taste, and for which the prigs wished to condemn him, but which most fair-minded people could see ought in a free society to be allowed.

How is Philp to make sense of that kind of provocation, and that kind of toleration? It is a matter more of instinct than of legal definition. The Bill is in danger of setting out to define the indefinable.

When the Daily Mail is angry with Philp, as assuredly it will be one day, it will turn him over. He will have arrived as a politician when that newspaper denounces him on its front page as an enemy of freedom.

Philp, born in 1976, was educated at St Olave’s Grammar School, in Orpington in Kent. He read physics at University College, Oxford, became a successful businessman, in 2006 took a council seat off the supposedly impregnable Camden Labour Party, but at the 2010 general election fell 42 votes short of defeating Glenda Jackson, the Labour incumbent, in Hampstead and Kilburn.

He had worked immensely hard to win the seat, but took defeat with good grace, and in 2015 was returned for Croydon South, after which he said in his maiden speech:

“People in Croydon South believe that hard work and enterprise are the best ways of combating poverty and promoting prosperity. Businesses such as the Wing Yip Chinese supermarket on Purley Way and BSW Heating in Kenley are the lifeblood not just of our economy but of our society. I share those values. Over the past 15 years, I have set up and run my own businesses in this country and overseas. I set up my first business when I was 24. I started by driving the delivery van myself, and eventually floated that company on the stock market. My grandfather also drove a delivery van and he grew up in Peckham. I think he would be very proud, if he were still with us, to see his grandson speaking on the Floor of the House today.”

All good stuff, but one detects a kind of compelled agreement which will not be available as he sets out to pilot the Online Safety Bill through the Commons.